The LHC: playing the long game
ACK IN 2003, when I first visited the atomsmashing lab at CERN in Geneva, there was a frenzy of construction going on, as the Large Hadron Collider was in the process of being installed.
Journalists are no good at being patient, and the prospect of the place unearthing anything useful seemed impossibly distant. Still, my cameraman and I were shown the cathedral-sized voids where the giant detectors were soon to be installed. We strolled through the empty tunnels that would later house magnets that would guide beams of protons. And we interviewed half a dozen scientists and engineers about their hopes for the project. Frankly, it all felt more like a science fiction film set than a research centre.
A few years later, we returned for a day of live broadcasts from the site of the CMS detector. We provided hourly updates as a 1,000-tonne component the size of a large house was gingerly lowered underground. But the notion of the gigantic machines achieving hard results still seemed very far off.
On another assignment, I was offered the chance to ride a bike through part of the tunnel. By now, all of the collider’s equipmentp was in pplace and I worried about crashing into something delicate. Even then, the scene seemed surreal.
In 2008 the big switch-on, when it eventually came, was quickly overshadowed by a blast in one of the magnets – not an explosion, insisted the CERN press team. All the same, it was a serious setback and meant further delay. Back in the newsroom,, where colleagues are geared for breaking news and instant reactions, the LHC’s timescale seemed grindingly slow. So when confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson finally arrived in 2012, we had to remind everyone why it was major news.
Now the LHC, given nearly double the power it had before, is embarking on a new round of exploration. And once again the timing of any outcome is utterly unpredictable. So a venture dreamed up in one decade, funded in the next, and built in a third is only now bearing fruit – and we in the media continue to keep watch with a mix of disbelief and admiration.
Screens in a control room
confirm the successful test- firing of the LHC’s beam
of particles after its restart