Smashing machines

After over a year of delays, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has smashed its first particles together. The accelerator is due to commence full operation in the next few weeks (assuming it doesn’t get sabotaged from the future … or baffled by a baguette).

Particles in the LHC travel at almost light speed, guided by superconducting magnets. They travel inside a beam screen, kept at a temperature of 5 degrees Kelvin (-268 Celsius), which shield the magnets from the intense particle beam.  Here’s our section cut from a spare beam screen.

Section of a beam screen from the Large Hadron Collider, 2001 (Credit: Science Museum)

Section of a beam screen from the Large Hadron Collider, 2001 (Credit: Science Museum)

Today’s particle physics poses a curatorial challenge, not least because Big Science is getting bigger. A few years ago we collected the Central Tracking Detector from ZEUS, a UK built-experiment which ran in Germany’s HERA electron-proton collider from 1992-2007. (As you can imagine from that last sentence, another challenge is remembering what all the acronyms stand for.) The photograph below shows the CTD being unloaded at Wroughton. It’s a pretty hefty beast but was only a small part of the whole ZEUS apparatus, which weighed in at 3600 tons.

Central Tracking Detector being unloaded at Science Museum Swindon, 2008

Central Tracking Detector being unloaded at Science Museum Swindon, 2008

Techniques learned in building and operating ZEUS helped in the design and construction of the LHC’s ATLAS experiment, the biggest and most complex particle detector ever built. ATLAS is 45m long and weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower. In trying to preserve some record of it in our collections, we need to consider the implications of an experiment that dwarfs any of our galleries – how much of it would be enough to be meaningful in its own right? What do we do about the vast networks of cables and computers for sorting and analysing the data? And then there’s the small matter of getting large chunks of kit out of the LHC ring and back to the museum.

We don’t have all the answers, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about a lot over the next few months as we’re actively adding to our physics collections. Watch out for future blogs on the subject. And in the meantime, why not book yourself a seat at our Centenary Talk with Professor Brian Cox on 18 January, where you can find out more about what’s going on at the LHC.

2 thoughts on “Smashing machines

  1. Pingback: Stories from the stores » Up and atom

  2. Pingback: Stories from the stores » A grand day out at RAL

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