The Large Hadron Collider

Last week I gave a talk on the Large Hadron Collider at the ‘cafe scientifique’ event in Hamilton. For those who don’t know what cafe scientifique is, the idea is that a scientist gets to discuss some science to an audience of the general public in a public friendly environment (which means a cafe). And strictly no powerpoint allowed. Topics that are currently in the news work best, which is why the LHC was on the menu, and why it fell to me, a physicist, to do the talking.

Now, I am not a particle physicist (that’s the sort of physicist who works with high energy particle accelerators).  I believe I once said something along the lines that experimental particle physics is a complete waste of money because it has no earthly use for anyone. (And then the implication is that theoretical particle physics is also a waste of time, because there would be no experiments to back it up).  But after doing some hurried background reading, perhaps my view has changed slightly.

The LHC is an impressive piece of engineering; the idea is that it accelerates two beams of protons in opposite directions around a 27 km tunnel, 100 m underground, and collides them, in order to probe the inner workings of matter. The resultant explosion of particles (not to be mistaken for a Big Bang) is then tracked by some huge detectors (imagine a cylinder 46 metre long and 25 metres in diameter, and you have the ATLAS detector) and processed by some seriously grunty computers with well thought-out networks behind them to allow sharing of the 50 000 Gbytes of annual data across the world.

So there has been massive techological development required in a wide range of areas to allow the LHC to exist. An interesting one, with a NZ twist to it, is Medipix, through which the technology behind the CMS detector can be used for ‘colour’ CT scanners in hospitals. So don’t write off the LHC as a large white elephant; I am sure you will see benefits filtering through to everyday life sooner than you think. But you may not recognise them as such.


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