What is the world's biggest machine costing us?
Investment Director – The Fleet Street Letter
David Stevenson Sep 09, 2008
Switch-on day is Wednesday 10 September
The world's biggest machine, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is being switched on tomorrow. Most scientists are very excited, but a few fear the LHC could bring about the end of the world – and even if it doesn't, how much is it costing anyway?
What is the LHC?
One of the biggest scientific experiments ever conducted. The LHC is the latest in a series of particle accelerators (see below), and is seven times more powerful than previous models. In fact, it's the largest machine in the world, weighing more than 38,000 tonnes, and running for 27km (16.5 miles) in a circular tunnel 100 metres beneath the Swiss/French border. Over the last 70 years, this equipment has allowed scientists "to penetrate deeper and deeper into the heart of all matter and further and further back in time", says the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the LHC's UK funding agency.
OK… but what does a particle accelerator do?
Exactly what it says on the tin. The collider will use superconducting magnets to steer atomic particles in two beams about 2mm wide (small enough to pass through the 0 on a 20p piece) around the 27km loop at temperatures of 1.9 kelvin – just above absolute zero. These beams will then be accelerated in opposite directions almost to the speed of light, and made to collide head-on 600 million times a second. Detectors placed around these collisions will enable scientists to analyse the thousands of new sub-atomic particles that will be produced, "recreating on a micro scale the energies and conditions that existed billionths of a second after the start of our Universe", says the STFC. 'Switch on' day is Wednesday 10 September.
Fascinating, no doubt, but who's paying?
Taxpayers i.e. you and me, are. The machine and personnel cost of the LHC project is £2.1bn, or £3.5bn if all infrastructure expenses incurred during construction and early running are included. It's run by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which in 1954 took over – and retained the acronym - from the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, itself founded two years earlier to establish a world-class research organisation in Europe. These days CERN focuses mainly on particle physics with an annual budget of some £455m, funded mainly by GDP-linked subscriptions from its 20 members, though non-member countries also contribute. In all, 111 nations are involved in designing, building and testing equipment, participating in experiments and analysing data. And Britain has a leading role. Over the LHC's 13-year construction period (1994 to 2006) the total UK contribution to the detectors, materials, staff and 'collider' was £511m. The ongoing annual cost to the UK is £108m, including its £82m national subscription.
Who gets the benefits?
Good question. Because the LHC isn't aimed at building a better world, but allowing mankind to test theories about how the universe started and works. The first discoveries won't be available until at least 2009, and many of the results will only emerge years into the future. But there are two advantages for the UK in playing a leading role in such a major international project, says CERN. Building the LHC has created new expertise, knowledge and technology which will have near-term medical, industrial and consumer uses. And there'll be longer-term benefits in the training of top-notch scientists and engineers, and "the maintenance of a vibrant world-class UK research base". What's more, another journey to the centre of the earth in on the agenda; the LHC's successor is already being discussed. For now, the International Linear Collider (ILC) is still being planned and no location has been agreed. But it would be the next step in allowing scientists to explore in detail the LHC's findings.
What exactly are the scientists hoping to find?
The first major discovery could be confirmation of a theory called SUSY - otherwise known as supersymmetry – which says that all particles have a heavier 'superpartner'. That would get the scientists quite excited: "finding evidence for SUSY would be a great intellectual triumph, as these ideas were conceived 30 years ago for their intrinsic beauty", says Albert De Roeck, who leads the team on one of the detectors. But the holy grail would be identifying and analyzing the 'Higgs boson', also known as 'the God particle'. That's the "earthly face of the mechanism thought to give particles their mass, and the main motivation for building the LHC in the first place", says Matthew Chalmers in New Scientist, "and with luck, by late 2020, physicists could find themselves in a playground of Higgs and SUSY particles".
But what could go wrong?
In research terms, "the nightmare scenario is no Higgs, no SUSY, not anything apart from known particles", says Chiara Mariotti, another detector co-leader, "that would mean rethinking everything from scratch". It could also mean that a planned 2012 upgrade of the LHC won't happen, and that CERN would have a big battle to get ILC off, or rather under, the ground. "Some theorists say that would be interesting", says De Roeck, but it would be a "horror scenario for experimentalists and we'd probably never listen to theorists again". Though even this disappointment pales into insignificance compared with the fears of some scientists, who fear the LHC could actually tear the earth apart.
Is this the end of the world scenario?
Yes. "The LHC has sent more internet-based harbingers of doom into a spin than atomic particles whizzing around its 17-mile circumference", says Joanna Sugden in The Times, "they say it won't be four horsemen that spell the end of the world but the flick of a switch". Walter L Wagner and Luis Sancho in Hawaii sought a temporary restraining order on the project, claiming CERN has played down the risk of the collider producing a 'black hole' – from whose gravitational pull nothing can escape - which could 'eat' the Earth. And the European Court of Human Rights last month rejected a bid to stop the switch-on led by a German biochemist who reckons black holes resulting from the LHC experiment "will grow exponentially and eat the planet from the inside" across a four-year period. Indeed, enough apocalyptic fears have been inflamed that CERN's scientists have published a panic-quelling report stating "nature has already conducted the equivalent of about a hundred thousand LHC experimental programmes on Earth - and the planet still exists". And a new Safety Assessment Report from the Institute of Physics in London says that any black holes produced by the collider would be "microscopic" and decay almost immediately, as they'd lack the energy to grow or even be sustained. In short, most experts agree the project is safe. So that's all right, then…isn't it…?
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