Hitting the accelerator

Science Museum curators seem to have a curious affinity for tunnels. Stewart’s been down a sewer, David ventured under the Thames, and I’ve just been to one of the biggest tunnels in the world, a 27km ring under Switzerland and France. Yes, it’s the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Unlike my colleagues I didn’t get to enter this tunnel – that would be a bit inconvenient right now, as on Tuesday the LHC commenced physics operations, colliding beams of protons at the highest energies ever achieved by a particle accelerator.

Hitting the headlines: 'a first big bang rocks Geneva'. (Alison Boyle)

I was visiting CERN as part of our physics collecting project, to see what artefacts they might be able to spare for the Science Museum. Like us, they are wrestling with how to preserve Big Science. I had a fascinating tour around the magnet lab – these ones were damaged in the 2008 accident that temporarily halted the LHC, and are being repaired.

Magnets under repair (Alison Boyle)

Before I left, I had a splurge in CERN’s gift shop. As well as serious science kit, we like to collect ephemera showing popular reactions to science. This natty bag features part of the mathematical equation predicting the existence of the Higgs Boson, which the LHC’s ATLAS experiment aims to detect. This jigsaw looks almost as complicated to build as ATLAS itself!

Scientific souvenirs (Alison Boyle)

A great thing about visiting places like CERN is that you hear some interesting anecdotes. It turns out there’s a reason why the LHC’s dipole magnets are clad in blue piping.

LHC magnets in an enclosure showing how big the tunnel is. (Alison Boyle)

CERN’s Director General during LHC planning was Chris Llewellyn Smith. Asked what colour to make the pipes, he opted for the colours of Oxford University, where he was a professor. I wonder if a link to the world’s highest-energy accelerator will give Oxford the edge over Cambridge in this Saturday’s Boat Race?

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