LHC down for the winter

This is the CERN press release regarding the status of the Large Hadron Collider. The bottom line: There was a release of helium leak inot sector 3-4 (which I’m pretty sure is next to sector 7g). They thik they know what caused the leak but they are not sure.

In order to investigate, they have to warm up these parts from near absolute zero to room temperature, inspect, repair, fiddle, but with/of what and in what manner is unknown, then cool it all back down again. The warming up and cooling down each take weeks.

If the repair and inspection takes only a few days or a couple of weeks, the entire cycle will bring use to a point in the calendar where there is a required “maintenance shutdown.” This is an annual period during the winter when the LHC is required to not operate (and thus, a good time to do maintenance … so they call it a maintenance shutdown, even though that is not what it is) owing to the cost and/or availability of electricity. So, no matter how long the repairs/inspection takes the machine will be shut down until late winter or so.

Now, keep in mind that even though the press release is worded in such a way as to allow unsuspecting reporters to believe that the engineers have a clue as to what is going on, it is also clear from the press release that they do not know what went wrong. Perhaps a part failed. Perhaps some adjustment needs to be made. Perhaps there is a fundamental design flaw somewhere that will require re-engineering.

On the positive side, the press report also states (but mainly by quoting outside sources) that this is a complex machine and that this kind of machine should be expected to break down frequently, especially in the early phases of its existence.


  1. #1 CS
    September 25, 2008

    I believe they had originally planned for about 6 months of engineerings runs that were cut out due to the delays in the LHC’s construction. When these things are first turned on, it is fully expected to take months and months to find all sorts of bugs and technical issues. They will even continue to identify issues and make improvements during the course of the experiment. I don’t think anyone involved in this project or even just familiar with it was expecting this thing to just work from the get go.

  2. #2 andy
    September 25, 2008

    What CS misses is the fact that Greg Laden really hates the LHC because they aren’t liveblogging. Notice how he slants his blog entry towards the paranoid side because the engineers haven’t had time to do a full analysis, yet he would also condemn them if they didn’t say anything at all until they did a full analysis.

  3. #3 eddie
    September 25, 2008

    I know it’s kinda comparing a testarossa with a transit van but it’s not as if they’ve never driven a particle accelerator before.

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    September 25, 2008

    What Andy apparently misses is that Greg has been asking for transparency from the LHC team. He doesn’t care that they don’t know what’s wrong, doesn’t expect them to know until they can look at it, but thinks they shouldn’t be implying they do know. A constant Twitter feed of, “Yep. All fine. Why do you ask?” would not be an improvement.

  5. #5 andy
    September 25, 2008

    Ok, the bit Greg Laden is objecting to is presumably

    Investigations at CERN following a large helium leak into sector 3-4 of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) tunnel have indicated that the most likely cause of the incident was a faulty electrical connection between two of the accelerator’s magnets. Before a full understanding of the incident can be established, however, the sector has to be brought to room temperature and the magnets involved opened up for inspection. This will take three to four weeks. Full details of this investigation will be made available once it is complete.

    Perhaps he can suggest how they should have written it, to best convey both their best guess is as to what happened but that they won’t know until they can access the equipment which will take a longer time.

    Greg’s last couple of LHC posts are basically “they aren’t releasing information immediately=BADBADBAD” and “they don’t yet know what’s gone wrong=BADBADBAD”.

  6. #6 Dr Eye
    September 26, 2008

    I’m curious. Why is this posted under physical science?
    OK, sure, it is about the LHC, but not about any scientific aspect of the project that I can discern. And speaking of dis CERN, what is the grounds for speculating that this mishap is due to a fundamental design flaw?

  7. #7 rpenner
    September 26, 2008

    Actually, “Operator 7-G” is a reference to Megazone 23, a 3-part Japanese animation project involving a population lied to about the very nature of their society and threatened by annihilation, and is in some ways a predecessor to The Matrix. I don’t believe there is a “sector 7G”.

    While frequently called a ring, the LHC is built with largely octagonal symmetry, with 8 short straight sections called points, numbered 1-8, and 3.3 km curved sectors between them named after pairs of points, like 3-4 or 8-1. The points are designed to facilitate access to the beam and they are where the experiments are installed. The sectors have the huge arrays of superconducting magnets and each would constitute the largest superconducting installation ever. But superconductors are a bit poorly characterized from an engineering point of view, and electromagnets of all types store energy. If, as suspected, one of the connections between the electromagnets was not operating to spec, the only alternative to superconducting current is ohmic heating from currents. This could easily lead to all the sector’s woes but because of the essential nature of the sector as a giant superconducting machines, it’s not a trivial thing to open the hood and examine the cause or to total the damage.

    So what’s Greg’s beef with CERN’s carefulness with news given the irrational behavior of the 6th sigma response to any natural admission of temporary or personal ignorance by scientists? I don’t get it.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2008

    I will be happy to clarify and expan. First, there certainly is a sector 7G.

    Here is my beef (see Stephanie’s comment): I have interpreted, perhaps incorrectly but so far I’m sticking to my story, CERN’s press stance as one that fails to acknowledge the reality of what is going on here. This is a complex machine and it will be very surprising if the first several times they try the ‘on switch’ it does not break down in some novel and unexpected way. In the same way, the actual scientific results, when they start coming out of the LHC, will be unexpected, or at least, one would hope (or why build the thing?).

    Given that this is the hottest, most expensive, and most hopeful current science project going (rivaling or surpassing the current Mars work) I firmly believe that CERN should be making a very strong effort to explain and describe what is going on in realistic, accurate terms that convey this complexity, including the uncertainty.

    No, andy, I am not asking CERN to tell us things that they don’t know. I am asking CERN to tell us that they don’t know things. I am asking a more even representation in the press releases of what is happening. I am asking for something other than one positive, airy-fairy-we-are-so-wonderful press release after another followed by deafening silence when something REAL happens, and more straight forward description fo what is happening including the uncertainties and the awe-inspiring complexity of it all. I’m asking for real, not deal.

    They can do this. Please do not confuse the issue here. It is not like I’m asking the guy with the duct tape and the wrench who is busy fixing the magnet to come out of his hole and have a press conference. CERN has the ability to educate and inform the rest of us, in a modest but realistic way, as they go along, and I am adding to this that they have the responsibility to do this. They can and they should but they are not.

  9. #9 Dr Eye
    September 26, 2008

    I am posting this from one of the LHC experimental control rooms (so, I am, of course, completely objective). I don’t think the guy with duct tape and wrench has gotten to the magnet yet. It seems to me that the press release explained what is known (or at least suspected): there was evidently an electrical problem which led to a helium release.

    I guess I just don’t see the big cover-up that you seem to see.
    Here is the first paragraph of the press release:

    Geneva, 23 September 2008. Investigations at CERN1 following a large helium leak into sector 3-4 of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) tunnel have indicated that the most likely cause of the incident was a faulty electrical connection between two of the accelerator’s magnets. Before a full understanding of the incident can be established, however, the sector has to be brought to room temperature and the magnets involved opened up for inspection. This will take three to four weeks. Full details of this investigation will be made available once it is complete.

    Is this not a pretty clear statement that the details are not yet known and won’t be until the sector warms to room temperature?

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2008

    I guess I just don’t see the big cover-up that you seem to see.

    Dr. Eye: I appreciate your comment. But I find it absolutely fascinating that you are suggesting that I’m saying that there is a cover up. I have never said that, and you are not the first person to see that in my writing (though it is definitively not there). Is there something you are trying to hide???? 🙂

    Yes, the press release does give actual useful information.

    My critique is this: Over the last several weeks CERN has put out only a subset of the press releases that I think, as an educator and a member of the public, they should have put out. I am concerned that people are not going to get that what LHC is in terms of engineering as well as in terms of the kind of science that is going on here. There are many, many unknowns as to what is going to work and not work, and what is going to be discovered once things get working. This universe of uncertainty may be a marketing department or press department’s worst nighmare, but it is the truth, it is how things are.

    In my view, the sequence of press releases that have come out of CERN to not indicate any attempt to educate the public to this large and very important context. This is not good for CERN and it is not good for those of us who are in the trenches in schools, etc., trying to keep some degree of credibility in the area of science.

    I am not suggesting that only providing the rosy picture and not the gory details is a cover up. I am suggesting that it is a crappy way to educate the public.

  11. #11 Dr Eye
    September 26, 2008

    How long will you continue to deny your saying there is a cover-up?
    Seriously, though, there is more information (and I’ll get here) than you can shake a stick at. It doesn’t all come in the form of press releases, but there is a ton of stuff on
    the web. For example, take a look at this:


    This will probably sound (slightly) more snide than I intend, but if you can’t find information about the LHC and the experiments ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHC-B, you either aren’t looking or won’t be able to understand it anyway.

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2008

    Dr Eye: There you go covering it all up again.

    But seriously, yes, there is a lot of information, as you point out, about the project. I would venture to say that I’ve been reading about LHC longer than half the whipper snappers working on it even knew they were interested in physics and engineering, and there are tons of materials on line about the machine.

    Now, go and look at the sequence of press releases since, say, May of 2008, which is what im talking about … not information about LHC or the overall project, but updates on what is happening as the project nears it’s fireup. Look at the number of paragraphs of text not counting what was cajoled or inferred by reporters, but rather, just what is in the material put out by LHC related entities, and tell me honestly that that is an even, up to date (yes, you’ll have to look at the dates) realistic, informative, sequence of updates equivalent to, say, a NASA project of a fragment of the size.

    It isn’t, man. I just isn’t.

    CERN gets an A+ for ingenuity, and A for engineering, and A+ persistance, extra points for every boson class discovered, and a C- at best for the ongoing dialog.

    The link you provide can be a very frustrating place to find news. For six days after the magnet went bad, that site was not updated once.