Just days after a faulty transformer was repaired, an apparent melted electrical connection between two magnets has brought the Large Hadron Collider down for two months.
Bolek Wyslouch, an MIT physics professor who is working on the project, said today that problems arising at this point in testing what is the world's most powerful and massive particle collider should not be unexpected. He declined to comment further on the latest problem.
Wyslouch, who has been working on the collider project for seven years, said the same thing last week after a 30-ton transformer failed on Sept. 11. That transformer is used to power coolants in the 17-mile underground, vacuum-sealed loop in the particle accelerator.
"So one thing didn't work. It's not a surprise," said Wyslouch last week. "There are many, many elements, and some of them had never been used and some of them break. You fix them and keep going. It's impossible not to have things break."
Then CERN -- as the European Organization for Nuclear Research is known -- reported that last Friday, the electrical connection between two magnets melted, causing a "large helium leak" into the tunnel. A CERN release said that "at no time was there any risk to people."
This latest problem comes just two weeks after the first test run of the collider, which Harvey Newman, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology, called "one of the great engineering milestones of mankind." In that Sept. 10 test, a particle beam made the first full circuit around the tube. After that, another beam was shot around the tube going in the opposite direction.
These tests are a build-up to the time when two beams will be shot around the tube in opposite directions on a collision course. Smashing the beams together will create showers of new particles that should re-create conditions in the universe just moments after its conception, giving scientists the chance to answer one of humanity's oldest questions: How was the universe created?
Last week, before the melted-wire problem, the collision test was expected to take place in a matter of weeks. Now, it will be pushed back at least until the end of November.
Controversy has swirled around the collider and the experiments being done there. Rumors have been circulating around the Internet that the experiments might destroy the universe by accidentally creating a black hole that would suck everything and everyone into it.
Under the Big Bang theory, many scientists believe that more than 13 billion years ago, an amazingly dense object the size of a coin expanded into the universe that we know now -- with planets, stars, black holes and life. Some people fear that by smashing the particle beams together in the collider, a similar cataclysmic reaction might occur, vaporizing our planet or sucking it into a black hole that would shoot it out into an alternate universe.
Wilczek sat on the science advisory committee at the LHC for six years. He more recently took the government's side in a U.S.-based lawsuit filed by a retired nuclear safety officer and a Spanish science writer who called for more safety reviews to be done before any experiments are conducted at the collider.