Bad News for the LHC

As you undoubtedly already know, the Large Hadron Collider suffered a setback this week:

The start-up of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN could be delayed after three of the magnets used to focus and manipulate the accelerator's proton beams failed preliminary tests at CERN earlier this week. The magnets were built at Fermilab in the US, which announced the failure on its Web site. Although CERN has not yet issued a formal statement on the set-back, it looks increasingly unlikely that the LHC will come on-line this year as planned.

(See also the official Fermilab release on the failure.)

Liquor sales near major universities are expected to spike upwards, as high-energy physicists spiral into depression...

Kidding aside, I have a good deal of sympathy for the predicament of the people involved in the field. A couple of years ago, I had a turbopump start making a death rattle the day before we were leaving for a family vacation, and I was miserable company for the entire trip. When major equipment goes down, it's hard not to see your whole career crumbling.

Of course, my vacuum pump breaking really only affects me and my students. It's difficult to imagine how to scale this up to something like the LHC, which carries pretty much all of the hopes of an entire field of physics. Any major delay in the construction and start-up schedule for the LHC affects hundreds if not thousands of people worldwide. I'm amazed that the people building it manage to function at all under the weight of those expectations.

It's not clear how big this problem really is, and details will no doubt trickle out over the next week or two. Here's hoping the damage isn't too bad, and they manage to get things back on track as quickly as possible.

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I had a comment about this on "Not Even Wrong" but the thread drifted off-topic when a drive-by blogger disagreed with me in an ad hominem basis, and Woit deleted that subthread. So, with some trepidation, but some confidence that there is a legitimate parallel here on inadequate engineering planning:

Reminds me of when I was in grad school at U. Mass./Amherst and all libraries on campus were to be consolidated into one skyscraper library, The W.E.B Du Bois Library, 28 stories of books, information, special collections, computer labs, study space, and great views, the largest public research library in the region.

When they began loading books into it, bricks started popping out, and almost braining students. The architects were called in for an emergency meeting.

"How did you take account of the the weight of books in the library, under dynamic conditions of wind and other forces?"

"You're putting books in that building?"

The payoffs had already been made. The building was already in place. So every other floor has books; the other floors are absurdly expensive computer labs, and study spaces. The smaller departmental libraries reshelved their collections.

I know that LHC is no library. But the similarities are, to me, suggestive. Don't get me started on what I learned as an engineer and scientist in Fortune 100 companies, and U.S. government agencies, including NASA...

Could it be that, for practical purposes, particle physics is at a deadend? The energies involved are so high, and the sizes so small, that the only way to conduct experiments is by building absurdly expensive accelerators. If the Higgs boson isn't found by the upcoming generation of accelerators, the particle physicists will be lobbying for even larger more expensive machines. Wouldn't the money be better spent funding other areas of science? It seems to me that, more than anything else, this field of physics is most in need of innovative new tools for investigating high-energy particle interactions.

If they don't find Higgs, or something interesting, I would say that there's not going to be any more big expensive particle accelerators in the near future. That's an opinion that several particle physicists have expressed to me.

Lets not see this digress into a discussion of the future of particle physics. [After the Z width showed there were only 3 generations, a pp experimenter said "life is going to be very boring". Even if they *do* find the Higgs (or, better yet, something no one predicted), a bigger machine is unlikely to be built in my lifetime. But this is about whether the machine, now mostly complete, will actually run as intended.

The real issue here is engineering. Basic structural engineering. Based on the FermiLab article, probably due to a failure to ask the right questions of the CAD program. [The program is only as good as the data in it and the person using it. I recommend reading "To Engineer is Human" by Petroski.] And we should remember that those engineers (or physicists) started learning those critical thinking skills in *our* physics classes.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 31 Mar 2007 #permalink

Must've broken in shipment.

I recommend reading "To Engineer is Human" by Petroski.

Strongly seconded!

The payoffs had already been made. The building was already in place. So every other floor has books; the other floors are absurdly expensive computer labs, and study spaces.

I'm a grad student at UMass now, and as far as I know almost every floor has books. You can see the floor directory on line; it shows books and special collections on nearly every floor. Does this suggest that these sorts of difficulties can be overcome?