Projeto Gênesis 2.0

quarta-feira, dezembro 23, 2009

The C.M.S. (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector—one of the Large Hadron Collider’s four main experiments—near the Swiss-French border. Its mission: to re-create conditions at the beginning of time.

The Genesis 2.0 Project


Compared with the market-driven, killer-app insta-culture of the Digital Age, the new Large Hadron Collider exists in a near-magical realm, a $9 billion cathedral of science that is apparently, in any practical sense, useless. Exploring its whizbang machinery, deep underground, the author probes the collider’s brush with disaster last year—and the secrets it may soon unlock. Plus: More photos of the Large Hadron Collider.

Among the defining attributes of now are ever tinier gadgets, ever shorter attention spans, and the privileging of marketplace values above all. Life is manically parceled into financial quarters, three-minute YouTube videos, 140-character tweets. In my pocket is a phone/computer/camera/video recorder/TV/stereo system half the size of a pack of Marlboros. And what about pursuing knowledge purely for its own sake, without any real thought of, um, monetizing it? Cute.

And so in our hyper-capitalist flibbertigibbet day and age, the new Large Hadron Collider, buried about 330 feet beneath the Swiss-French border, near Geneva, is a bizarre outlier.

The L.H.C., which operates under the auspices of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, cern, is an almost unimaginably long-term project. It was conceived a quarter-century ago, was given the green light in 1994, and has been under construction for the last 13 years, the product of tens of millions of man-hours. It’s also gargantuan: a circular tunnel 17 miles around, punctuated by shopping-mall-size subterranean caverns and fitted out with more than $9 billion worth of steel and pipe and cable more reminiscent of Jules Verne than Steve Jobs.

The believe-it-or-not superlatives are so extreme and Tom Swiftian they make you smile. The L.H.C. is not merely the world’s largest particle accelerator but the largest machine ever built. At the center of just one of the four main experimental stations installed around its circumference, and not even the biggest of the four, is a magnet that generates a magnetic field 100,000 times as strong as Earth’s. And because the super-conducting, super-colliding guts of the collider must be cooled by 120 tons of liquid helium, inside the machine it’s one degree colder than outer space, thus making the L.H.C. the coldest place in the universe.

If all has gone according to plan, the physicists at cern by late November will have flipped a switch, and proton beams in each of two pipes will have started shooting around the ring, one beam clockwise and the other counterclockwise, at an energy level of 3.5 trillion electron volts, several times that of the current most-powerful-particle-accelerator-ever-built. And then, any day now, the L.H.C.’s proton streams will be forced to begin colliding head on, at a combined energy of seven trillion electron volts, producing up to 800 million collisions per second.

So many years, so much effort, so much money and matériel, so much energy and cutting-edge ingenuity. And yet the wizards at the controls aren’t really out to produce anything practical, or solve any urgent human problem. Rather, the L.H.C. is, essentially, a super-microscope that will use the largest energies ever generated to examine trillionth-of-a-millimeter bits of matter and record evanescent blinks of energy that last for only trillionths of a trillionth of a second. It’s also a kind of time machine, in the sense that it will reproduce the conditions that prevailed 14 billion years ago, giving scientists a look at the universe as it existed a trillionth of a second after the big bang. The goal—and it’s a hope, a dream, a set of strong suspicions, rather than a certainty—is to achieve a deeper, better, truer understanding of the fundamental structure and nature of existence.

In other words, it’s one of the most awesome scientific enterprises of all time, even though it looks like a monumental folly. Or else, possibly, the reverse.

The Quench

When the proton beams start shooting around, it will in fact be for the second time. The On buttons of the new super-collider were first punched on September 10, 2008, and for a while everything was going extraordinarily well. The start-up had been preceded by some well-publicized hysteria on the fringes, with alarmists worrying that the L.H.C. would create a black hole that could swallow the earth. (The fear is unfounded.) There was also a cern subplot in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, in which Illuminati steal anti-matter from the L.H.C. in order to evaporate the Vatican. (Also not a concern—it would take an impossible amount of time and energy to produce enough anti-matter to make a bomb.) On September 10, the physicists at cern could not have been more pleased. Within 50 minutes of the start-up the proton beams were firing perfectly. Plus, says Dave Barney, a British physicist who has devoted his professional life to the collider, “the world hadn’t been destroyed. So that was nice.”

But then, Barney notes, “the 19th happened.” By September 19, a Friday, the collider had been humming along for nine days, and proton collisions were imminent. In one of its eight two-mile-long sectors, the power had already been raised almost to the maximum with no problems, while seven of the eight sectors were “commissioned,” or fully activated. The last to go was the sector beneath the French villages of Crozet and Échenevex, at the foot of the Jura Mountains. Around noon the power there was cranked up past 5 trillion electron volts, toward 5.5.

The tunnel of the L.H.C. is a 12-foot-wide concrete tube, like a very large sewer pipe but lit and air-conditioned for the technicians who must access the machinery. The accelerator consists of 1,232 cylinders, each of them 50 feet long and 2 feet thick, strung through the tunnel like a 17-mile chain of 35-ton sausage links laid in a circle. The proton beams are fired through three-inch pipes embedded in the center of the sausages. Surrounding those pipes inside the giant sausages are powerful electromagnets, which make the protons travel in their great circles at nearly the speed of light. And surrounding each of the magnets—the sausage casing—is a jacket of liquid helium to cool the super-conducting cables. When they’re turned on, the force inside, pushing out against the super-hardened steel container, is equal to the power of a 747 taking off.

The big magnetic sausages are called dipoles, and the bundled cables connecting each one to its end-to-end neighbor are packed inside copper casings the size of a cigarette lighter. Each casing is filled with solder to make the connection solid. As it happened, that was the source of the problem: one of the copper casings on one of the dipoles had not been properly soldered. And so, around midday on September 19, 2008, the connection “quenched”—which means a super-conducting cable suddenly lost its super-conductivity, turning into an ordinarily conductive wire that couldn’t take the 11,000 amps of electricity.

Sparks erupted. An intense electrical arc began burning a hole in the dipole’s steel jacket. Pressurized helium turned from liquid to gas and blasted into the tunnel, creating a huge pressure wave. In a domino-like chain reaction, 35-ton dipoles were jerking and smashing against other 35-ton dipoles, some blown two feet off their moorings.

The main damage was done within 20 seconds. It was all over a half-minute after that. Ten of the million-dollar dipoles were wrecked and smoldering. Twenty-nine more were damaged. The destruction extended for more than 2,000 feet, and smoke and soot billowed through the tunnel. In the vicinity of the accident the air had been instantly supercooled by the tons of escaping helium—which meant that several hundred feet underground, sealed off from skies and weather, snow began to fall. “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice,” wrote Robert Frost, but in this sector of the Large Hadron Collider, the showstopping spectacle involved both at once.

Up on the surface, in the control rooms, there was in fact no sound, no bump, no rumble. No sirens or Klaxons went off. But in the main control room, someone noticed that green tabs on one of the 300 computer monitors had suddenly turned red: the emergency Stop buttons in the tunnel had been hit. No one had been down there to hit them—the tremendous pressure wave of escaping helium had fortuitously done the job.
More monitors started turning red. “The beam is gone,” Alick Macpherson, a particle physicist from New Zealand, said to the scientists around him. In many languages at once people quietly muttered “Fuck” and “Shit.”

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