Collider switched on, but data will take months to flow

Scientists completed the first tests of the Large Hadron Collider on Wednesday morning, far more quickly than they had expected.

The LHC will be used to search for elusive subatomic particles. However, it will still be months before the first experimental data starts to flow from the LHC, according to Lyn Evans, leader of the LHC project at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on the Franco-Swiss border.

The LHC consists of a circular tunnel 27 kilometers long within which two beams of protons will be confined in a magnetic field and accelerated around the tunnel in opposite directions to close to the speed of light before smashing into one another. Scientists hope that their computers will find evidence for the existence of the Higgs Boson, a particle predicted by theoretical physics, when they comb through their observations of the collisions.

CERN staff turned the LHC on for the first time Wednesday morning, and within a couple of hours had successfully guided the first proton beam all the way around the circular tunnel. Scientists at CERN spoke about the event via webcast.

"It may have looked easy to you, but it was only made to look easy because of the quality of the equipment, the quality of the software and the quality of the people," said Evans.

This first milestone came sooner than expected, said Rüdiger Schmidt, deputy leader of the LHC hardware commissioning team.

"I was really surprised that we made the first turn of one beam within two hours. I would not have expected that. Everything has to be aligned to within 0.1 millimeter," Schmidt said.

Although the first test went well, the LHC is not yet ready for work. Later Wednesday, the scientists plan to test the second particle beam, which will spin around the collider in the opposite direction. That test was delayed by problems with the cryogenic system that chills the collider's powerful magnets.

"The LHC is its own prototype, so it's difficult to judge how long it will take us to commission it fully. Within a few months we should be operating for physics," said Evans.

At that point, the LHC will start to test not just physics theory but also data warehousing practice, as the detectors surrounding the collider will generate up to 20 petabytes of data a year.

Scientists around the world will then examine that data to analyze the expected particle collisions.

The different kinds of apparatus are necessary to check up on one another, to make sure that observations are a result of real physical events and not artifacts of the design of the experiments, according to Austin Ball, technical coordinator for the Compact Muon Spectrometer, one of the experiments using the LHC.

It's important to capture and process as much observation data as possible because what the scientists don't see can be as important as what they do see.

"If we don't find the Higgs boson, that would in itself be a very interesting discovery," said Ball.

The physics textbooks would have to be torn up, he said.

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