The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been in the news a lot ever since it started operating in 2008. This particle collider is the largest of its kind, and certainly the most expensive and ambitious science project taken on by humanity in our history. The LHC has been described as “One of the great engineering milestones of mankind,” and I’d have to agree. Starting this week though, the LHC is being shut down for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades – so, we won’t be hearing much from this stunning piece of equipment for the next 20 months.
This particular maintenance period has been a few years coming. On September 10, 2008, scientists at CERN successfully fired the first batch of protons around the tunnel in stages; the first large scale test of the equipment. Unfortunately, this success was short lived when 9 days later, a catastrophic failure occurred that lead to six-tons of liquid helium being vented into the tunnel. This venting occurred with such an explosive force that it managed to damage over 50 superconducting magnets and their mountings, contaminated the vacuum pipe, and caused the pipe to lose its vacuum entirely. (I would like to take this moment to say that, whereas the LHC nearly blew up, we are all still here. The world has yet to end.) The catastrophe itself was caused by a magnet quench, which was probably caused by a faulty electrical connection between two magnets.
Of course, the LHC recovered from this disaster, and has continued to revolutionize particle physics ever since. This upgrade will see the LHC operating at a capacity surpassing the original designs. It will allow scientists to look deeper into the properties of particles as they search for the building blocks of the universe around us. It’s hard to predict what will happen when scientists look at the world anew with the upgraded LHC.
Two of the greatest accomplishments made by the LHC in its 3 year operational history is the discovery of the Higgs Boson (or, at least the particle that appears to be the Higgs) as well as providing a 3.5 stigma for the ‘super-symmetry’ theory that matches the Standard Model (rather than the host of variants on the theory). The LHC has also been responsible for a countless number of technological spin-offs, primarily in imaging abilities and the generation of simulations — both are used heavily in engineering and medicine.
One thing is for certain, though; when the LHC is once again functioning, we are bound to find some very cool stuff.