Large Hadron Collider, the piece of baguette, and the end of the world as we know it: something like that

By Branko Brkic 10 November 2009

The end of the world may really be nigh. This time. Yep, Nostradamus said 2012, but there's always someone out there who wants to pass the post first.

So it was with the Large Hadron Collider, which one science geek dubbed (and this is slightly paraphrased) “the mighty particle-punishing subterranean 27km supercooled magnetic doughnut”, which accelerates subatomic particles to near light speed before smashing them against each other and into dead-ends. Like it was with Y2K, the end of the world as we know it has been and gone, again – even as the wickedly cynical people spread panic that the LHC would cause Earth to be sucked into a black hole of its own making. But when the CERN techno-junkies turned it on, nothing much happened.

Taking 15 years and $9 billion to build, the grand turn-on last September was a big turn-off for PR types used to pulsing spectacle. For instead of turning everyone on the planet into mulch within nanoseconds – and returning the spirit of Great Aunt Sally to boot – the giant accelerator, buried deep under the Franco-Swiss border, didn’t much manage to smash up many particles at all, after its super-conducting magnets mysteriously lost their ability to operate at the required energy levels.

While that fix looks to be still some way away (read mid-year next year, maybe), the rehabilitation of LHC has now flown ever further out the window, for reasons even stranger than the thoughts that crossed Alec Irwin’s mind over the bolt that crippled Koeberg. In the latest bout of LHC downtime, CERN’s best reckoning is that on the 5 November a bird or plane dropped a piece of baguette (in keeping with the Francophone surroundings) onto some electrical machinery above ground. This made sections of the super-machine significantly overheat to -265.15 deg C (which is rather terribly, terribly cold), despite some super-cooling liquid-helium acting as a refrigerant.

What is surprising is that some spy camera at the facility hasn’t recorded some manual labourer dropping crumbs from his lunch-time brie-and-pickle sandwiches, and that CERN is blaming humanity’s feathered friends (the airplane theory is pretty much out of orbit). Knowing how sensitive such facilities are – whether CERN, Los Alamos or Moonbase Alpha – this will have the securocrats tearing at their hair, while idled and frustrated scientists will wonder how long they will remain becalmed.

Like with Koeberg’s mysterious bolt, an uncontrolled shutdown of the LHC could be potentially crippling, as each beam of hadrons is said to have as much energy as an aircraft carrier at full speed. If the ship suddenly stops, the pent up energy is the equivalent of the vessel hitting an iceberg. So whether or not it was a bird or a plane, one must hope that the LHC story doesn’t have the Titanic’s ending

By Mark Allix

Read more: Times Online, New York Times, Melkbos