The Large Hadron Collider is Powering Back Up, What Next?

A segment of the Large Hadron Collider's super-cooled electromagnets. Credit: CERN/LHC
A segment of the Large Hadron Collider’s super-cooled electromagnets. Credit: CERN/LHC

After a 2 year hiatus for a significant upgrade, the Large Hadron Collider is being switched back on and, early on Sunday, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator saw the first circulation of protons around its 27 kilometer ring of superconducting electromagnets.

This is awesome news, especially as there was a minor electrical short last week that could have derailed this momentous occasion for weeks, or maybe months. In one of magnet segments, a metallic piece of debris from the upgrade work had become jammed in a diode box, triggering the short. Manual removal of the debris would have forced a lengthy warm up and then cool down back to cryogenic temperatures, but CERN engineers were able to find a quick fix — by passing an electrical current through the problem circuit the tiny piece of debris was burnt away, no warm-up required.

With this small hiccup out of the way, the complex task of circulating protons around the LHC began this weekend, resulting in two sparsely populated beams of protons speeding around the LHC in opposite directions. So far, so good, but the particle accelerator is far from being ready to recommence particle collisions.

“Bringing the LHC back on, from a complete shutdown to doing physics, is not a question of pushing a button and away you go,” Paul Collier, head of beams at CERN, told Nature News.

Sure, the LHC is circulating protons, but it is far from restarting high-energy collisions. In fact, over the coming weeks and months, engineers will be tuning the machine to finely collimate the counter-rotating beams of protons and gradually ramping-up their speed. The first collisions aren’t expected to begin until June at the earliest.

But seeing protons pump around the LHC for the first time since 2013 is an awesome sign that all the high-energy plumbing is in place and the electrical backbone of the accelerator appears to be working in synergy with the massive magnetic hardware.

Over the next 8 weeks, engineers will turn on the LHC’s acceleration systems, boosting the beam energy from 450 GeV to 6.5 TeV, gradually focusing the beams in preparation for the first collisions.

According to Nature, the re-started LHC will slam 1 billion pairs of protons together every second inside the various detectors dotted around the accelerator ring with a collision energy of 13 TeV, boosting the LHC’s energy into a whole new regime. During the LHC’s first run, the maximum energy recorded was 8 TeV.

This makes for a curious time in cutting-edge particle physics.

Before the LHC was fully commissioned in 2008, its clear task was to track down, discover and characterize the Higgs boson, the last remaining piece of the Standard Model. Having achieved the Higgs discovery in 2012 — resulting in the 2013 Nobel Prize being awarded to Peter Higgs and François Englert — physicists have been combing through the reams of data to understand the new particle’s characteristics. Although a lot still needs to be learnt about the famous boson that endows all matter with mass, Run 2 of the LHC has a rather vague mission. But “vague” certainly doesn’t mean dull, we could be entering into a new era of physics discovery.

I always imagine that powering up the LHC is like this... completely inaccurate, mind you.
I always imagine that powering up the LHC is like this… completely inaccurate, mind you.

We’ve never seen collision energies this high before, and with the Standard Model all but tied up, physicists are on the lookout for phenomena with an “exotic” flavor. Exotic, in this case, means the production of quantum effects that cannot be easily explained or may be driven by mechanics that have, until now, been considered pure speculation.

Personally, I’m excited that the LHC may generate a signature that we cannot explain. I’m also trilled by the possibility of micro-black holes, the discovery of dark matter particles, potential hints of supersymmetry and quantum gravity. But I’m doubly-thrilled by the prospect of something popping out of the collision debris that doesn’t make any sense.

As the LHC will now slam protons (and, later, ions) at energies nearly double of what it was previously capable of, we are in uncharted territory. Physicists are recreating the conditions of the Big Bang, condensing primordial particles and forces from the concentrated energy of colliding beams of charged particles. So far, after only 7 years since the LHC was first powered up, it has already confirmed the existence of a Standard Model Higgs boson. So now, without a single ultimate goal, the LHC will do what physics does best, discovery-driven science that could answer many quantum mysteries and, hopefully, create many more.

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Higgs Boson-like Particle Discovered in CMS and ATLAS Data!

The CMS detector at the LHC (CERN)
The CMS detector at the LHC (CERN)

Yes, the Higgs boson has been discovered… or, to put it more accurately, something that looks like a Higgs boson has been discovered. But is it a Higgs boson? There’s a very high probability that it is, but in the world where theory meets high-energy physics, it pays to be completely sure about what you’re looking at.

Prof. Peter Higgs, theoretical theorist, receives applause at the CERN event.
Prof. Peter Higgs, theoretical theorist, receives applause at the CERN event.

But for the ATLAS and CMS collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, who held a rapturous conference at CERN and in Australia this morning, they’re pretty damned sure they are looking at a bona fide Higgs boson discovery.

“We have observed a new boson,” said CMS lead scientist Joe Incandela.

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of five sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV,” confirmed ATLAS lead scientist Fabiola Gianotti.

“I think we have it,” said CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer. “We have discovered a particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.”

Why all the certainty? Well, it all comes down to statistics, and all the statistics seem to show a defined “bump” in the CMS and ATLAS data around the mass-energy of 125-126 GeV/c2 — to a statistical certainty of 4.9 and 5 sigma. 125-126 GeV/c2 just so happens to be one of the theorized masses of a Higgs boson — placing the Higgs’ mass at 133 times that of a proton. This particular boson is therefore the most massive boson ever detected.

For more news on this incredible discovery, check out my Discovery News blog “Particle ‘Consistent’ With Higgs Boson Discovered

The LHC Black Hole Rap… Best Yet

Released in December 2009, Kate McAlpine (a.k.a. AlpineKat) put together the rather fun “Black Hole Rap” in an effort to trivialize the disinformation being peddled about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). You might remember AlpineKat from the hugely popular (and deliciously geeky) “LHC Rap” that has generated over 5 million hits on the YouTube video. Here’s the newest music video filmed in the depths of the French-Swiss border:

Unfortunately, the crazy “LHC Doomsday Suit” that tried (and failed, miserably) to stop LHC operations is still fresh in people’s minds. However, physicists have stepped up to the plate to debunk the claims and the LHC is happily colliding protons to its heart’s content. I love it how science wins, despite the noise made by a few crazed doomsday wingnuts…

2012 Has Become the Tweed Jacket of Doomsday Scenarios

Palenque Museum Mayan glyphs (wyattsailing.com)

In a little over three years time, December 21st 2012 will be upon us. For every reason under the Sun, 2012 will be a normal year, with its fair share of trials, tribulations, disasters, deaths, political unrest and pretty much every other setback we’ve been facing this year, last year and all the other years we’ve lived through. Some years are better than others, some are downright bleak, but we can never predict what the year 2012 is going to be like. And no, the Mayans, astrologers, secret government conspirators or tea leaves don’t have a clue either.

No vague doomsday prophesy predicted since the dawn of time has happened, and that’s not going to change.

It’s a little thing called causality. No future event can be seen before it happens, otherwise the whole cause-and-effect thing gets completely screwed up. It’s the way time works, no amount of believing otherwise will change that…

*yawn* Sorry, I fell asleep. Is it me, or is this 2012 bunkum already getting out-dated? Has it become the doomsday equivalent of the tweed jacket of fashion?

I bring this up as the doomsday hype is leaking into every facet of reporting, and today I read an Examiner post that is trying desperately hard to get attention. This time, it’s not about crop circles predicting killer solar flares, it’s the LA Science and Tech News Examiner who couldn’t resist dropping in a mention for the Mayan calendar when reporting about the recent Large Hadron Collider (LHC) woes.

The report goes into some detail about recent LHC problems, pointing out that the particle accelerator probably won’t be operating at full energy until… wait for it[cue doomsday alert!] …2012.

This triggers another doomsday ‘tweed jacket,’ the nonsensical LHC-induced Earth-eating-black-hole pseudo-science theory popularized by Walter “I need some attention” Wagner after he tried (and failed) to sue CERN for endangering the planet with its scary physics.

I’d understand if the report was commenting about real science behind the various silly doomsday scenarios that are being thrown around like confetti, but it isn’t. Fred Gober decided that the LHC wasn’t interesting enough to stand on its own merits and threw in some doom to jazz it up a bit.

It’s true that Gober was just airing opinions, which is perfectly fine, but at least poke fun at the 2012 doomsday hype rather than using it as a reason to try to add some fear to LHC science (although I suspect he might be trying to be funny, didn’t work). Gober also finds it necessary to link to a ridiculous ‘2012 believer’ site (apparently Mel Gibson ‘believes’, shocker).

I also understand that many readers won’t pay much attention to the doomsday reference, but as we found out in the run-up to last year’s first attempt to get the particle accelerator started, some people take this kind of reporting seriously, occasionally with tragic (and bizarre) consequences.

Unfortunately, 2012 will continue to be overused for the next 40 months, so expect more science-based articles like this Examiner post that decide to add some doom to their reporting.