This story is over 5 years old
The Conversations With Distinguished Gentlemen Issue

Ripping The Universe A New One

Last September, the opportunistic hypochondriacs who control the global media tried to convince us that the end of the universe was coming. This turned out to be an exaggeration.

by Tom Littlewood
Jun 2 2009, 12:00am


Lyn Evans Says There’s
No Need to Fear His
Large Hadron Collider


Last September, the opportunistic hypochondriacs who control the global media tried to convince us that the end of the universe was coming. The first test of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), they said, would smash protons together at such a velocity that it would gut the space-time continuum and create a universe-swallowing black hole.

This turned out to be an exaggeration. The inaugural activation of the world’s largest and fastest particle accelerator didn’t destroy anything except itself. In a subterranean lab below the Franco-Swiss border, the LHC was activated for about nine days but failed shortly before reaching full power. Since then it’s been under repair. A second attempt is scheduled for later this year, which means we’re about to enter another cycle of fanatical worry and idiotic handwringing.

Regardless of your views on the matter, the geniuses who run the thing at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) don’t wish to destroy the world. They are actually trying to figure out the opposite: how we got here. CERN hopes to use the LHC to glean insights into dark matter, the Higgs boson, quark-gluon plasma, sparticles, and a whole bunch of other funny made-up science words.

Lyn Evans is an LHC project leader. He actually hit the ignition switch of this tall drink of Compact Muon Solenoid on its initial boot-up. And he hopes to flip it a second time later this year, with improved results.

Vice: How did you get involved with all this fancy science stuff?

Lyn Evans:
I grew up in a Welsh mining valley in a village called Aberdare. There was a very good public school system and I have been interested in science for as long as I can remember. It was very natural that I went into the domain of chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

How did you end up at CERN?

I did a PhD in laser-produced plasmas. It’s a big business now, because they want to create fusion with laser beams. CERN was looking into this stuff as a side project, and I first came here as a visitor in 1969. A little later I joined the staff and I helped build the Super Proton Synchrotron—the antiproton-proton collider of the 80s that won us the Nobel Prize—and the Large Electron-Positron Collider, which then became the LHC. I had a period where I was the head of one of CERN’s biggest departments. It had 450 people. It was interesting to do for a while, but it was a very administrative job. Soon I was asked to become project leader for the LHC. I had worked on all the previous machines and had also worked in the US, so I had the experience. Of course I jumped at the chance. You don’t get to build something like this every day.

What’s been the project’s biggest challenge?

In the beginning it was getting the LHC approved. Back in 1994 there were very difficult political issues, and many members were trying to get in line with conditions for the single European currency. It was a tough time. It took a lot of persuading to get the 20 members of CERN to support the LHC. We then had a crisis in 1996, when Germany had to reduce its contributions to CERN because of the problems with reunification. Afterward came many technical problems that were solved on the way. It’s been quite a haul.

This scary-looking monster is named ALICE. It’s going to detect the behavior of particles in the aftermath of a collision similar to the one that happened during the Big Bang. CERN is hoping that it will also generate a quark-gluon plasma, which will help us understand why protons and neutrons weigh 100 times more than the quarks that make them up.

Not many people would be willing to make that type of commitment. Did you imagine it would take 15 years to get to this point?

No. I think it’s pretty good to be naive when you take on a project like this. We knew that we were breaking completely new ground, but we did not imagine that it would take us this long.

How did you feel when the first test failed at the last step?

Well, it felt like a real kick in the teeth. That’s the only way I can put it.

What went wrong?

September 10 was the proposed start date, which got into the media and was therefore necessary to keep. Of course we wanted to test everything up to the full energy before that date. The LHC is in eight independent sectors, and you can test them individually. Each one is about three kilometers long. We had already tested seven sectors, and when it came to the eighth we had taken that sector close to the full energy but not up to it. So we did that work, which went fantastically well. The beam was circling in the LHC, and then the next step was to bring that very last sector up to the same energy as the others. That’s when the incident happened.

We happened upon a cross section of a replacement superconducting magnet. There are over 9,000 of these things in the accelerator ring. The two bits covered by tinfoil are the pipes through which the proton packets travel, completing over 11,000 laps of the LHC every second. At various points these two pipes join and the protons are forced to collide, generating temperatures more than 100,000 times hotter than the sun’s core.

It was a problem with some of the magnets bending, correct?

One of the joints between two magnets—there are 50,000 in the machine—was bad and we hadn’t spotted it. It wouldn’t be a big deal if it were not for the complexity of the LHC, but just to get in there you have to warm the machine up. It takes about six weeks before you can even see what’s going on. It’s not dissimilar to the Hubble Space Telescope. If something goes wrong, it’s a hell of a lot to repair, even if it’s a small thing.

There was a lot of media attention when the LHC first started running and some thought it was a giant waste of time and money. How do you deal with that and the reaction to the failure?

There was a huge amount of media attention, and I think a lot of it was due to the black-hole saga. Fortunately, I didn’t know that a feed was being beamed out live from the control room while we were working. The EBU [European Broadcasting Union], which took the feed, estimated the viewing audience at about 1 billion people. That’s never been heard of for a scientific experiment.

And what do you think of these critics? Are they hysterics?

I think these people are well known to us. They’re not scientists, but you can’t stop free speech. What it’s shown to me is the bad side of the web. I think that the web can be an amplifier of noise. In the blogs, people didn’t know what they were talking about. These problems get amplified, and you see that in other areas as well. For example, there is a measles epidemic in Switzerland right now. Mothers are not vaccinating their babies because of all the nonsense that is tumbling around on the web. Having said that, I think we dealt with the black-hole problem. There is not a single credible scientist in the entire world who sees any difficulty at all.

Are you really trying to re-create the Big Bang?

The LHC is intended to shed light on some of the very fundamental questions that remain in nature. Some call it the Big Bang machine, because in the LHC we can create conditions that were a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. During the Big Bang there was matter and antimatter. We can make antimatter in our accelerators, but it doesn’t exist in our universe in any substantial form like this. When we make antimatter, we always make an equal amount of matter with it—that is the law. So in the Big Bang there should have been equal amounts, but now all the antimatter is gone.

Where did it go?

This is one question we’re hoping to answer. What is this asymmetry that allowed matter to win over antimatter and for us to be here? It could’ve been a universe of just light. It’s a mystery why we are made out of electrons, protons, and neutrons, or why the photon is made of particles of light. The only viable theory is that there is this field, this sort of Higgs field throughout the whole of space, and these particles couple more or less strongly to these fields. If that theory is correct, then the famous Higgs particle should be there. We don’t know what its mass is, but we will find it.

Given the importance of the work you do, I find it a little odd that your lab is as open as it is.

As long as it’s safe, we can do whatever we want. Things will start to become really radioactive when the machine is properly cooled. CERN has always been extremely open like this. You can’t build a thing like CERN without the support of the locals. If you want to put up a pole for mobile phones, you have to ask the community. We have a very good relationship, so we’re open. We have nothing to hide.

What is the next step for CERN and the LHC?

This is one of the problems of the field and experiments like this. It’s been 20 years in the making. It will be 20 more years before we know what’s next—if there even is a next step.

Want to see the machine that some people think will gobble up the entire universe? Watch an extended interview with Lyn on Motherboard on VBS.TV.