A scientific subculture thrives at LHC

It takes a small city of researchers to run the Large Hadron Collider and its collection of experiments. Its residents speak their own language, too.

CERN put the LHC in a 27-kilometer underground ring left from an earlier accelerator. The sprawling site is matched in scale by the number of researchers.
CERN put the LHC in a 27-kilometer underground ring left from an earlier accelerator. The sprawling site is matched in scale by the number of researchers. CERN

GENEVA--The LHC shows science on an unusually large scale.

Thousands of researchers are involved in each of the Large Hadron Collider's major experiments, and more are there to operate the beam itself. Something like half the world's particle physicists are involved one way or another with the LHC, estimated Maria Isabel Pedraza Morales, a University of Wisconsin physicist who works on the ATLAS experiment.

The accelerator is likely to lead to hundreds of academic papers and doctoral dissertations in coming years. CERN's hallways are teeming with an international mix of senior physicists and young researchers just getting their start in the trade. Scientists are a minority in most parts of the world, but at CERN there are enough to form a subculture.

They speak a dialect whose terms sound almost, but not quite, like English: inverse nanobarns, penguin loops, octupoles, charge-parity violation, quench protection system.

The LHC has a huge collection of people who share a powerful motivation: curiosity. Accelerators have produced occasional commercially relevant technologies in areas such as medical diagnostics, but the reason researchers are at CERN is because the want to know what makes the universe tick.

The LHC's scale is all the more impressive in light of how hard it can be to obtain government funding for projects largely without practical applications. It took international willpower to sustain the LHC from its approval in 1994 to its operation 16 years later.

Big-science projects don't always fare so well. Willpower evaporated for the accelerator that might have been, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which was canceled 10 years into its life in 1993 after construction in Texas had begun. Had it been built, the SSC would have offered nearly triple the energy level expected out of the LHC: 40TeV proton collisions.

The LHC makes no pretensions about being anything other than an academic pursuit. But getting a bunch of scientists together can produce unexpected commercial benefits.

CERN's high-profile example of the unexpected fruits of scientific labor: the World Wide Web, which Tim Berners-Lee invented as an easier way to share information among groups, and his original NeXT computer that served the first Web pages is enshrined at CERN's computer center.

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