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Physicist: Large Hadron Collider glitch was not unexpected

Failed transformer shut down cooling in 2 sectors of collider a day after first test

September 19, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - An MIT physics professor said it was completely normal that one of the hundreds of transformers failed a day after the Large Hadron Collider's first test last week.

According to a statement from CERN -- as the European Organization for Nuclear Research is known -- a 30-ton transformer, which is used to power coolants in the 17-mile underground, vacuum-sealed loop in the world's most powerful particle accelerator, failed on Sept. 11. Because of the failure, the collider switched off the main cryogenic compressors for two sectors of the machine.

The transformer was replaced with a new one last weekend. Since then, technicians have been recooling the magnets and preparing to shoot another particle beam around the loop. A beam first made a full circuit around the tube in a test run last week. Harvey Newman, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology, called the test run "one of the great engineering milestones of mankind."

Bolek Wyslouch, a professor of physics at MIT who has been working on the collider project for seven years, told Computerworld that last week's experiment was a major achievement because so many mechanical elements had to run properly at the same time.

"So, one thing didn't work. It's not a surprise," said Wyslouch. "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."

Last week's experiment was the first in a series of tests that will be run before scientists are ready to accelerate two particle beams toward each other at 99.9% of the speed of light. 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?

Wyslouch said he's not sure of the exact date when the first particle collision will happen, but it should only be a matter of weeks.

According to CERN, on that first day of testing, particle beams, going one at a time, made several hundred laps around the tube.

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.

With the Big Bang theory, scientists largely believe that more than 13 billion years ago an amazingly dense object the size of maybe 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.

Fears about the experiments reached such a furor that Frank Wilczek, an MIT physics professor and Nobel laureate, received death threats because of his involvement with the Large Hadron Collider. Wilczek sat on the science advisory committee at the LHC for six years, and more recently took the government's side in a recent 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.

Read more about Hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.



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