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Countdown delayed

First Posted 13:51:00 10/07/2008

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Part 3 of Countdown to collision

Following the success of the Large Hadron Collider's activation last month, an electrical malfunction between two of the ring's powerful electromagnets was detected. While not perceived to be a major setback, properly assessing and repairing the electrical systems involved in the leak will be a complicated procedure that requires bringing that section of the LHC back up to room temperature from its operating temperature of 1-degree Kelvin (-272 degrees Centigrade) or near-absolute zero.

Warming up from those kinds of temperatures will take weeks. Add a few more weeks for the repairs and several more weeks to again bring that section of the LHC down to its freezing operational levels will require a total of several months' downtime - six months, to play it safe. Which means the LHC will be back in operation by early 2009 still.

News of the malfunction was a downer for scientists, of course, some of whom have been waiting decades to use the machine. But the malfunction was not totally unexpected. LHC administrators said they were more surprised with the LHC's successful first run than the problems that followed.

It looks like the universe gets to keep some of its secret a little longer. Until then, physicists will just have to tap into their reserves of patience, a requirement for any person of science.

But while scientists and geeks (is there a difference?) all over the world are going through the roller-coaster ride of successes and setbacks concerning the LHC - especially in the past few months when all the components of the device was finally assembled, cooled down and finally tested - many everyday folks are still wondering what the heck is going on. These are people who have apparently never heard about the LHC until just a few weeks ago, when the largest experiment in the world finally went online last Sept. 10, and event that was covered by newspapers, TV news, science websites and blogs. Those in the know all went yammering about how humanity is one step closer to discovering the origins of, well, everything. But everybody else was going ?Huh?? and wondered what all the fuss was about, especially with all that talk about how the LHC would lead to the destruction of the world.

I believe I've covered ground on what the LHC is all about before. But in light of the recent setbacks with the LHC for the sake of those out there who still don't get what it is, allow me to revisit that topic, this time without all the garnishing of strange terms and numbers. This is how CERN - the French acronym for the European Organization for Nuclear Research - defined what the LHC's purpose is:
?The LHC was built to help scientists answer key unresolved questions in particle physics. The unprecedented energy it achieves may even reveal some unexpected results that no one has ever thought of!
? For the past few decades, physicists have been able to describe with increasing detail the fundamental particles that make up the Universe and the interactions between them. This understanding is encapsulated in the Standard Model of particle physics, but it contains gaps and cannot tell us the whole story. To fill in the missing knowledge requires experimental data, and the next big step to achieving this is with LHC.?

Going into a bit more detail (and where the strange terms come back), the ?world's largest experiment? is actually not just one experiment but six housed in a single 27-kilometer long circular machine. These experiments - dubbed ATLAS, CMS, ALICE, LHCb, TOTEM and LHCf - cover different angles of particle physics.

ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) and CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) are the ?main? experiments that are general-purpose in nature, including the search of theoretical subatomic particles like the Higgs boson. ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) and LHCb (Large Hadron Collider-beauty) are more specific experiments.

ALICE aims to recreate and study the conditions of the universe right after the Big Bang (in a far smaller scale, of course), while LHCb will study the ?beauty quark? in an attempt to answer why the universe is composed of matter instead of anti-matter. TOTEM (TOTal Elastic and diffractive cross section Measurement) and LHCf (Large Hadron Collider-forward) are the smallest of the six experiments and are more passive in nature, like studying the side-effects of proton collisions from the ATLAS and CMS experiments, such as the size of the proton and using excess energy from collisions.

But all experiments (especially the first four) aim to answer one basic question: Why does matter exist when the things that make it up are devoid of dimensions or mass? It's the ultimate gestalt puzzle in physics, as scientists have wondered how particles like bosons and muons - things that seemingly don't have mass - can be the building blocks of matter. It's like figuring out why 0 + 0 = 1.

But figuring that and other things about the universe out will have to wait. Scientists have waited decades for the LHC to answer questions about the universe billions of years old. What's another six months, right?

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