the largest machine ever built -- 12/02/16

Today's selection -- from Knocking on Heaven's Door by Lisa Randall. The "Large Hadron Collider" (LHC) is the largest, coldest, most magnetic, and most expensive machine ever built:

"The collisions [scientists will] study at the LHC are akin to those that took place in the first trillionth of a millisecond after the Big Bang. They will teach us about small distances and about the nature of matter and forces at this very early time. You might think of the Large Hadron Collider as a super-microscope that allows us to study particles and forces at incred­ibly small sizes -- on the order of a tenth of a thousandth of a trillionth of a millimeter.

"The LHC achieves these tiny probes by creating higher energy par­ticle collisions than ever before achieved on Earth -- up to seven times the energy of the highest existing collider, the Tevatron in Batavia, Il­linois. ... Quantum mechanics and its use of waves tells us these energies are essential for investigating such small distances. And -- along with the increase in energy -- the intensity will be 50 times higher than at the Tevatron, making discovering the rare events that could reveal nature's inner workings that much more likely.

The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator

"Despite my resistance to hyperbole, the LHC belongs to a world that can only be described with superlatives. It is not merely large: the LHC is the biggest machine ever built. It is not merely cold: the 1.9 kelvin (1.9 degrees Celsius above absolute zero) temperature necessary for the LHC's superconducting magnets to operate is the coldest extended re­gion that we know of in the universe -- even colder than outer space. The magnetic field is not merely big: the superconducting dipole magnets generating a magnetic field more than 100,000 times stronger than the Earth's are the strongest magnets in industrial production ever made.

Map of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN 

"And the extremes don't end there. The vacuum inside the proton­-containing tubes, a 10 trillionth of an atmosphere, is the most complete vacuum over the largest region ever produced. The energy of the colli­sions are the highest ever generated on Earth, allowing us to study the interactions that occurred in the early universe the furthest back in time.

"The LHC also stores huge amounts of energy. The magnetic field itself stores an amount equivalent to a couple of tons of TNT, while the beams store about a tenth of that. That energy is stored in one-billionth of a gram of matter, a mere submicroscopic speck of material under or­dinary circumstances. When the machine is done with the beam, this enormously concentrated energy is dumped into a cylinder of graphite composite eight meters long and one meter in diameter, which is encased in 1,000 tons of concrete.

"The extremes achieved at the LHC push technology to its limits. They don't come cheaply and the superlatives extend to cost. The LHC's $9 bil­lion price tag also makes it the most expensive machine ever built."


Lisa Randall


Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World


Ecco an imprint of Harper Collins


Copyright 2011, 2012 by Lisa Randall


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