“That won’t happen,” he said fiercely. “That’s the worst thing imaginable.” I realized that I was treading on delicate territory whenever I asked what kinds of things could go wrong with the LHC. No, the collider can’t blow up the world, but this is high-energy physics. When those magnets are turned on, scientist Richard Jacobsson pointed out, a person swinging a hammer in the vicinity would do well to wear a helmet.
When the LHC starts smashing particles, Europe will suddenly become the dominant location for particle physics, and the United States will find itself struggling to figure out how to stay relevant. Perhaps that’s a petty concern given the magnitude of what the LHC might turn up, but it’s something people talk about. Since the Manhattan Project there’s been a general notion that the U.S. dominates the world of physics. Until now, the energy frontier has been at Fermilab, home of the Tevatron. That collider has found some important particles, but it might not have quite enough juice to nail the Higgs.
Some U.S. money has gone into the LHC, which will cost billions of dollars: five, maybe ten—the exact number is elusive (the science will be precise, but the accounting apparently follows the Uncertainty Principle). But most of the engineering is being done by European firms. Jürgen Schukraft, who supervises an LHC experiment named ALICE (which will re-create conditions the same as those just after the big bang), said, “The brain drain that used to go from Europe to the States definitely has reversed.”
The cynic might say that there’s no practical use for any of this, that there might be other uses for all the money and brainpower going into these particle guns. But we live in a civilization shaped by physics. We know that the forces within an atom are so powerful that, unleashed and directed against humanity, they can obliterate cities in an instant. The laptop computer on which I’m writing uses microprocessors that would not exist had we not discovered quantum physics and the quirky behavior of electrons. This story will be posted on the World Wide Web—invented, in case you hadn’t heard, at CERN, by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee. Maybe you’re reading it while listening to your iPod, which wouldn’t exist but for something called “giant magnetoresistance.” Two physicists discovered it independently in the late 1980s, with not much thought of how it might eventually be used. It became crucial to making tiny consumer electronics that used magnetized hard disks. The physicists won a Nobel Prize in 2007, and you got a nifty sound system that’s smaller than a Hershey bar.
When I asked Peter Jenni why the LHC is important, he said, “Humankind differs from a collection of ants. We have intellectual curiosity; we need to understand the mechanisms of life and the universe.”
And anyone who thinks these big machines are soulless contraptions should listen to Richard Jacobsson. The LHC is replacing a particle detector he worked with for a decade. He came to know every inch of that instrument. He understood its moods and idiosyncrasies. The day the engineers came to rip it out, Jacobsson was overcome with emotion. “I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “When they cut the cables, I thought blood would flow out.” Now entire lives are wrapped up in the new machine, which physicists have been dreaming about since the 1980s.
Many people at CERN are hoping they’ll get more than just answers: They’d like to uncover some new mysteries. John Ellis confided that he wouldn’t even mind if the LHC failed to find a Higgs. “Many of us theorists would find that failure much more interesting than if we just find another boring old particle that some theorists predicted 45 years ago.”
New puzzles seem a sure bet. After all, the universe doesn't seem to be constructed for our investigative convenience. We’re big, sloppy meat-creatures who haven’t even taken a good census of the species of bacteria that live in our bodies. One day I asked George Smoot, a Nobel laureate physicist, if he thinks our most basic questions will ever be answered.
“It depends on how I’m feeling on any particular day,” he said. “But every day I go to work I’m making a bet that the universe is simple, symmetric, and aesthetically pleasing—a universe that we humans, with our limited perspective, will someday understand.”
(Written by - Joel Achenbach, a Washington Post staff writer. He has written columns and features for National Geographic since 1998.)