Weird Wednesday: Electromagnetic boogaloo

ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) is one of the six particle detector experiments currently currently used at the Large Hadron Collider. (Image Editor/Flickr Creative Commons)

Last week we went over the science of the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN’s) fabulous Large Hadron Collider. Now, this week we’re going to delve into it’s origin story.

Large Hadron Colliders don’t just fall from the sky and situate themselves in massive underground Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP) tunnels. How did this behemoth come to be?

Particle accelerators themselves are nothing new. The first working particle accelerator was constructed in 1928 by a Norwegian physicist, Rolf Widerøe, using electromagnets (if you recall last week’s column, the LHC uses massive amounts of electromagnetic energy to fling subatomic particles at ludicrous speeds).

Particle accelerators, following this invention, have been used to study the behavior of hadrons and the structure of atoms. It was only logical to make a massive version of this, in order to add more power and test hadron capabilities on a larger scale.

In 1977, CERN director Sir John Adam (yeah, he was so awesome that he had a knighthood) suggested constructing the LEP tunnel and a collider to fit, with the aim of creating a superconducting proton collider. Its massive size would allow for high-energy collisions-- a phenomenon unexplored in the realm of physics.

This, of course, took some deliberation, especially in the realm of how atoms and intra/intermolecular forces actually worked (a set of rules and factors now known today as ‘The Standard Model’). You can’t go smashing atoms without knowing what you’re doing.

Plans for the LHC were discussed again in 1984, when a workshop called “The Large Hadron Collider in the LEP Tunnel” (which sounds like a still-life title) was held by the CERN and the European Committee for Future Accelerators in Switzerland. Our friend Higgs Boson (who we also discussed last week) began to enter the conversation, further pushing for the construction of the LHC.

In 1987, with President Ronald Reagan’s support, preparations for the world’s largest particle accelerator began in earnest. In 1988, the 27-kilometer (16 mile) in circumference ring meant to house the accelerator was excavated beneath the France-Switzerland border.

At the time, worldwide attention and funding for the LHC was competing with another possible collider-- the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which was being built in Texas (because everything is bigger there). However, a lack of funding by the U.S. government ended the SSC in 1993, leaving the LHC as the only supersized particle collider left in the works.

The LHC was funded through government contribution, through about 22 different ‘Member’ states within Europe, including Bulgaria, Austria, Spain and Portugal. The U.S. and other ‘Observer’ countries also contributed to the LHC’s construction, with the cost of the build totaling to over $8 billion (though to be fair, it takes over $23 million in energy costs alone to run it).

The massive project was officially approved for construction in 1994, though there were still years of prototype magnets to test, experiments to come up with, holes to dig and conceptualizing left to do. Construction was further delayed in 1998 when Gallo-Roman ruins were discovered at the site of excavation (only in Europe!).

In 2002, the tunnels and caverns intended for the LHC (along with the associated detectors, generators and probably a physicist snack bar) were fully excavated, and the parts and pieces that would make up the mechanism began to be lowered into the hole.   

In July 2008, after about 30 years of planning, logistics, digging, building and theorizing, the final piece of particle accelerator descended into the cavern. In September of that year the LHC ran its first experiment, successfully steering a beam of fast-moving protons around the ring.

Since then, the LHC has been running experiments and accelerating us into a better future. Much like registering for classes, it was a long, messy and complicated process, but in the end, we now have a gigantic atom-smasher lurking under the earth, built entirely from scratch. Isn’t humanity awesome?  


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.