NPR goes to LHC

National Public Radio’s David Kestenbaum, who’s quite reliably an excellent reporter whose field reports I always enjoy, did a report on CERN’s (soon to be switched on) Large Hadron Collider (see also a Wiki here) today! Or rather, it was played on this morning’s Morning Edition. Here’s the site where you can listen to an archived version of the report, and read a transcript of some of it. It’s rather well done.

CMS Higgs simulation event

(Image: A simulation from the CMS experiment – part of the LHC – showing the decay of the Higgs particle after being created in one of the high energy collisions.)

It starts with a few theoretical physicist clichés in the introductory remarks leaving up to talking to Alvaro De Rujula, but it’s fine – not really too over the top, and done with good humour. Really good is that fact that once the physics issues start being discussed and described, he focuses on doing that well. The bottom line is that if your subject -the science- is good, that should take center stage in forming the core of the report for attracting and holding the audience’s attention.

And report does it well. Through interview and Kestenbaum filling in with further explanatory remarks, he does a pretty good job of describing the point of the 16 mile-long LHC, bringing out back story of the huge success of the Standard Model of particle physics for the last 30 years and why that has left a lot of remarkable quiet in elementary particle physics, and why this is a hugely important experiment. This is motivated nicely by describing some of the mysteries still remaining in the Standard Model, the chief one being the question “What is Mass?”. This is the prime purpose of the LHC, and this is properly emphasized in the report.

There’s rather nice imagery used here and there. The tiny particles being collided – protons (one of the particles that normally helps constitute the nucleus of an atom) – will each have the energy of a city bus [update: No they won’t! See below] as they whiz around the 16 mile track that runs underneath parts of France and Switzerland. Then they’ll collide them together. So the resulting energy released from each collision (and there’ll be umpteen of them per second) will allow physicists to probe the “structure of the vacuum”. That latter phrase means that via Einstein’s E=mc2, other particles can and will be created in the collisions – lots of them will be ones we know, but unknown and unexplored stuff has a chance to be created too. It is that unknown stuff that will tell us about the new physics.

Correction from two commenters (thanks Bob and Bee!) on the energy, and from the update on the NPR site:

This story stated that each proton in the accelerator carries the energy of a bus. This is wrong. But added together all the protons in the machine will carry the equivalent energy of 100 10-ton buses moving at 200 mph.

The new physics includes (it is hoped) clues as to the origin of mass – perhaps the Higgs particle (as it is called – this is the particle which is expected to mediate the interaction which gives the property of mass to (nearly) every particle that is known), or perhaps a family of such particles performing this mission.

There’s also a bit of chatter about other things which might be seen (and for which physicists are keeping an eye out): The issue of the making miniature black holes, which would be a direct signature of certain scenarios involving extra dimensions of spacetime. De Rujula talks about this for a bit, emphasizing (for the nervous and critical) the harmlessness of this by distinguishing them from large astrophysical black holes that gobble everything up – these subatomic-sized holes would simply evaporate, leaving a characteristic (and hugely exciting!!!!) signature in the experiments. (And, I should mention, would open up a completely new frontier of direct experimentation in quantum gravity in concert with particle physics….)

More likely than black holes (De Rujula says, interestingly) is the finding of particles that would constitute the Dark Matter that we know is present from numerous cosmology and astrophysics observations. Recall that about 85% of the matter in the universe is in an unknown form! One way to determine its nature is to use E=mc2 to create it directly in the laboratory and study it. (This would be a huge achievement too, of course, if you think about it.)

I like that the article ends with them considering possibility of finding nothing:

Derujula says this would actually be the most interesting outcome.

“That would tell us we really haven’t understood anything about the vacuum,” he says. “Although that is the most interesting possibility. Suppose we don’t find it and don’t find anything else. How do we explain that not finding anything is the best possible thing? It would be very difficult.”

Yes, is a possibility that is both scary and exciting (in a way, as it tells us that there’s even more to be understood about some of the basics)…. Kestenbaum speculates that the LHC would then probably be the last big particle physics experiment of its type.

So have a look at NPR’s site (there are some interesting images and video as well as the article’s audio and transcript). I think there’ll be a second report tomorrow, when Kestenbaum goes down into one of the experimental halls and probably the LHC tunnel. So listen out.


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15 Responses to NPR goes to LHC

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    Quick editing note:

    Through interview and Kestenbaum filling in with further explanatory remarks, he does a pretty good job of describing the point of the 16 mile-long LHC, bringing out back story of the huge success of the Standard Model of particle physics for the last 30 years and why that has left a lot of remarkably quiet in a lot of particle physics, and why this is a hugely important experiment.

    “A lot of remarkably quiet?” I think I grok what this is about, but it looks like the phrasing should be tweaked a little.

  2. Clifford says:

    A simple change of a y to an e.

    Thanks so much.



  3. Plato says:

    At first bad reporting? Producing fear into the public mind?

    In recent years the main focus of fear has been the giant machines used by particle physicists. Could the violent collisions inside such a machine create something nasty? “Every time a new machine has been built at CERN,” says physicist Alvaro de Rujula, “the question has been posed and faced.” August 1999

    Steinberg, when at Quantum diaries, lead much of us through this.

    Alvaro was the one who put “James Blodgett of Risk assessment” at ease in regards to strangelets. Now, could strangelets have been considered a consequence of the evaporation? Does this not look similar?

    Now everything is safe and cozy with these subatomic-sized holes which would simply evaporate. 🙂 How would you know “what is new” after the subatomic holes had evaporated? Are sterile neutrinos new?

  4. Bob McNees says:

    I don’t think that quote about the buses can be correct. A 10 ton bus travelling at 200 mph has a kinetic energy of around 36 million Joules…that’s around 10^14 TeV. I think they must have meant that each bunch in the beam has roughly that much kinetic energy, or maybe all the particles in the beam together have as much energy as several buses.

  5. Bee says:

    Hi Clifford,

    thanks, this is interesting! Will have to listen to it – I am still busy with my public lecture for Saturday (it was postponed after somebody from human resources figured out I was scheduled for Easter).

    Some info about the Micro Black Holes

    A question: protons […] will each have the energy of a city bus as they whiz around the 16 mile track kinetic energy? You sure about that? I am kind of sceptic about this. It seems to me the city bus would have vastly more energy – its a macroscopic object! Say we have a bus with 10 tons = 10,000 kg driving at 100 km/h = 28 m/s. Then its kinetic energy is 1/2 * 10,000 * (28)^2 kg m^2/s^2 approx 4 * 10^6 Joule. Now I have no idea what a Joule is in eV but this converter tells me it comes to something around 10^13 TeV.




  6. Bee says:

    ah – sorry, I only just read Bob’s previous comment (should have refreshed the page)

  7. Clifford says:

    Yes, it does seem a bit excessive….. Presumably there are no physicists checking the reporter’s facts….but he must have got it from somewhere…. I shall have to put an update in the post….

    (Or perhaps the buses in Geneva move very very slowly….)


  8. Plato says:

    Is it not important to see the experimental process as a natural one?

    Bringing the Heavens down to Earth

    If mini black holes can be produced in high-energy particle interactions, they may first be observed in high-energy cosmic-ray neutrino interactions in the atmosphere. Jonathan Feng of the University of California at Irvine and MIT, and Alfred Shapere of the University of Kentucky have calculated that the Auger cosmic-ray observatory, which will combine a 6000 km2 extended air-shower array backed up by fluorescence detectors trained on the sky, could record tens to hundreds of showers from black holes before the LHC turns on in 2007. See here

  9. Bob McNees says:

    Looks like someone beat us to the correction. NPR’s website now has a correction at the top of the page, explaining the mistake.

  10. Clifford says:

    Yeah, and that will teach me to believe the reporter without checking the computation.

    Thanks all!


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