The Large Hadron Collider is like the Moon—round, large and mystical. To doubting thinkers, it's like the Moon missions: expensive and unnecessary. If you're a Dan Brown fan, it's dangerous. But whatever you think of it, the LHC is going to change our world—and here are some of the ways how.
Finding the Higgs Boson: God From the Machine
It's not true to say the LHC was built for one reason...but if it were, the Higgs boson would be it. The Higgs is predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, which explains how our Universe works. But it's the only particle in a rather large list (quarks, electrons, protons, and so on) that's never been observed. It's important because if it exists it'll help explain the why things have mass in our universe, which is still a mystery. That makes it so fundamental, and mystical, it's earned itself a nickname: The God Particle.
Why all the excitement about a particle—it wouldn't impact on daily life would it? The answer is yes, of course it would. Deep and complex physics is more than just intellectual navel-gazing. Without particle physics, quantum mechanics, crystallography and a huge number of other disciplines, you wouldn't have an iPod in your pocket, a computer to read this on, electrical power or advanced medical scanners. Each little scientific success, like finding and understanding the God Particle, has an effect in our lives.
Just Building the Thing
The Large Hadron Collider really is astonishingly, well, large. It's essentially a giant circular vacuum tube within which particles are accelerated up to a good portion of the speed of light and banged into each other. We've been doing similar things for decades but never on a scale this enormous. Years ago, I worked with a synchrotron—a superficially similar machine—and took great pleasure walking the 100m (328 foot) distance around the top of the beam tube, ducking and weaving around the equipment.
But the main LHC ring has a circumference of nearly 27 kilometers—over 16 miles around. The key bits of machinery are advanced magnets, about 9,300 in total. Some of them have to be super-cooled to run (a coolant leak caused the accident that disabled the LHC last year), and when it's working properly it'll be at a temperature of -271.25ºC, -456.25 Fahrenheit. That needs around 96 tons of liquid helium, and makes the LHC the largest cryogenic facility in the world. The main ring is also dotted with experimental chambers where the actual physics will happen—the largest of these is five stories high.
Think about all this being carved into the rock under a mountain, along with all the wiring, cooling, heating, computing and so on. Just building the LHC has taught us a lot about mega-scale engineering.
Other Science Experiments
Scientists working at LHC will have a huge number of different experiments underway in addition to the hunt for the Higgs particle. Each of these will feed data into a specific scientific field and boost knowledge and understanding: the effect from each success or failure will have a subtle but pervasive effect on the world.
As well as being huge physically, the LHC will generate gargantuan amounts of data. When it's running, all the experiments will produce 700 megabytes of data each and every second—one CD's worth—or 15 million gigabytes a year. And it's likely to be running for up to 15 years, which equates to 473 million CDs worth of data.
To process all that info CERN, which owns the LHC, has created a vast interconnected computing grid—more than a simple network. It's a globally-distributed supercomputer, a whole new machine for analyzing the LHC data. But it's not confined to just LHC computing, and as Ian Bird, leader of the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid noted, when speaking to Reuters: "Many other researchers and projects are already benefitting. Grid computing is enabling all-new ways of doing science where large data handling and analysis capabilities are required."
Considering the world wide web was invented at CERN by Sir Tim Berners Lee, the computing grid's value can't be underestimated.
CERN has already created a number of new pieces of technology from earlier experiments. As well as the WWW, there are examples like the medipix chip—developed to be a highly sensitive particle detector for experiments, it's found applications in other fields like medical imaging, where its high sensitivity means less radiation is needed, which lowers the exposure of patients to potential harm.
No-one can tell what other spin-offs the LHC will result in, but there are bound to be many. And they'll be unexpected.
Keeping Us Human
Professor Steven Hawking needs no introduction, and his words carry clout. Speaking about the LHC to BBC radio he made one of the most interesting observations yet: The LHC is far more than just a curio. Our interest in the universe is what defines us from the other Earth creatures, and as Hawking puts it "The LHC and the Space program are vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one tenth of a per cent of world GDP. If the human race can not afford this, then it doesn't deserve the epithet 'human'."
The misunderstandings and pseudo-religious ramblings that have surrounded the LHC basically reinforce Hawking's point. Sailing above the bizarre waffling of people afraid the device will destroy the world with a black hole, the Large Hadron Collider is one of mankind's biggest and boldest attempts yet to understand the universe. And it should be celebrated as such: It's an angel, not a demon.