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The Reg puts Vulture inside the Large Hadron Collider

No sign of any superpowers yet ...

By Brid-Aine Parnell, 19 Apr 2013

Pics It's probably the greatest scientific experiment of our time (or at least the biggest), a 27km round tunnel that fires trillions of protons in opposite directions over 11,000 times a second at 99.9999991 per cent of the speed of light lying under the Alps in Europe.

LHCb entrance

The entrance to the Large Hadron Collider beauty

The Large Hadron Collider is literally trying to answer questions about life, the Universe and everything, investigating the last physical mysteries of how this crazy Universe called home got started. Its investigations include probing the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which it is theorised make up the mass of 95 per cent of the cosmos, finding out what the deal is with quarks, and, of course, looking for that pesky Higgs boson.

The so-called God particle, which physicists hypothesise gives mass to visible matter in the macrocosm, has been spotted, though of course its discovery throws up more questions than answers. Now the LHC is going to rev up its engines (so to speak) to 13 trillion electron-volts (TeV) in order to prove or disprove supersymmetry, and look into some of the mysteries of the Standard Model of particle physics. Physicists hypothesise that there are even more particles in the TeV energy range, so adding a bit more juice to the LHC should help answer some questions and, if all goes well, confirm some theories.

To ramp up the energy, LHC engineers need to tinker about with all the bits of the huge project, making sure they can handle the new higher energies, in a two-year process known as the long shutdown. Aside from prepping the collider for greater things in 2018, the shutdown also gave one lucky Reg hack the opportunity to see its insides.

To say the complex straddling the border of France and Switzerland is impressive is a vast understatement. The Alps tower over the site, which is swarming with thousands of people a hell of a lot smarter than your humble writer. But naturally, the small group of journos is itching to descend around 100m underground to the tunnel.

LHCb airlock

Step this way, Dr Freeman

LHCb lift

The lift to the beauty experiment

The first stop on the tour was the LHCb experiment, where boffins are investigating basic questions about antimatter and looking for signs of the elusive dark matter.

If an appropriate sense of awe had not already been instilled in the LHCb visitors by the amazing experiment, the sheer magnitude of the collider in general, massive warehouses, and myriad important-looking wires and tubing, it certainly was when we had to start going through radiation safety airlock structures and passed signs with orange alarm lights attached.

When matter and antimatter meet, they annihilate each other, raising the interesting question of how the Universe ever came into being, since all the matter made in the Big Bang should have exploded along with its opposite number. LHCb wants to figure out why that didn't happen and along the way, look out for beauty quarks, a rare type that only exist for about a million millionth of a second in the experiment and could help point to a whole new family of particles that may make up some of the dark matter in the universe.

Alarms, airlocks and machines that go 'ping'

Once through to the other side of the airlock, a very long elevator ride took the group into the tunnel where particles are beamed into LHCb as well as the many other experiments at CERN. Luckily, no one was claustrophobic or intimidated by the tonnes of earth over their heads, or if they were they kept the panic to a minimum as the group got their first glimpse of the tunnel.

LHCb tunnel

Now the place is starting to look a lot more like Black Mesa from Half Life

Work has already started all around the collider to get things ready for when the particles start whizzing around again in 2018. Some of the metal tube the beams pass through has been deconstructed and is held together by that wonder substance, tinfoil.

The particle tube deconstructed at LHC

The particle tube deconstructed

Inside the tube, the particle beams race around in separate pipes in an ultrahigh vacuum, and are then merged for the experiments' collisions. They're guided around the ring by a strong magnetic field, supplied by superconducting electromagnets that are supercooled to -271.3°C - cooler than outerspace - by liquid helium.

Thousands of magnets are at work throughout the LHC, including 15m long dipole magnets to bend the beams and 392 quadrupole magnets, around 6m long, to focus the beams. Don't get too distracted by the incredible science and engineering going on though, you might get left behind by the group...

Group pulls ahead in the LHCb tunnel

Wait, where did everyone go?

Massive magnets and smashed-up protons

LHCb trackers

Part of the particle-tracking hardware

After grudgingly leaving the tunnel behind - a place few folks are allowed to enter, even if they work at LHC - the group heads for the other side of the wall, where the LHCb apparatus for collision and detection is located.

It's a sizeable system of detectors, trackers, calorimeters, a muon identification system and a massive magnet that bends the trajectories of charged particles to show which are positively charged and which are negatively charged. The LHCb experiment smashes proton beams together and runs proton to lead-ion collisions.

In the midst of the upgrade, the group gets to see the trackers, which register the position of passing charged particles so that computers can reconstruct their exact trajectories, as well as the muon system. The yellow-and-orange-striped muon system tracks the tiny heavy electron-like particles present in the final stages of beauty quark decays to help LHCb search for clues into the nature of dark matter.

LHCb muon system

The beauty experiment's muon following system

Inside the experiment, the particle pipe can be seen feeding through to the muon system from far below on the ground.

Inside the LHCb experiment

Now starting to resemble the factory scene at the end of Terminator 2

The Compact Muon Solenoid

LHC spokespeople are fond of saying that the data produced by the LHC is roughly enough to fill 100,000 DVDs every year, around 15 million gigabytes of data annually, and while a huge amount of that information isn't held by CERN, a considerable amount of computing power is needed to sift through it. Just one long room of that onsite computational heft is an impressive sight. It's arguably the world's most extensive computer system.

LHCb computer room

The experiment's computer room, complete with cable nest

But the boffins have saved one of the most impressive sights for last. Leaving LHCb, the group enters the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), one of the experiments responsible for spotting the Higgs boson. Outside the apparatus itself, we get to see that we've come a looooong way down. (Any blurriness in this pic is of course down to some sort of camera thing, and not the trembling hands of your Reg hack).

A long way down to CMS

It's a long, long drop to the Compact Muon Solenoid

One of the guides compares walking inside CMS to walking into a particularly stunning cathedral, with the same sense of awe for the accomplishments of man. As much as a cynical and embittered hack would like to be able to disagree, the description is actually pretty accurate. The immense apparatus, full of tiny moving pieces that thousands of people have managed to engineer in a move towards explaining the known universe, is more than a little awe-inspiring.

Inside the CMS experiment

Stepping inside the muon experiment

The only thing that dimmed this Vulture's spirits just a little was that your humble explorer had not started to glow, shrunk to tiny size or developed any super-strength as a result of the close encounter with the collider. ®

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