Welcome to the machine

Friday 11 Jul 2008

Will science and God collide as the countdown begins for world’s largest experiment?

Michael Hammond looks into how an experiment in Switzerland will affect your life...

It’s called the machine. Officially called the Large Haldron Colider (LHC) it is known by the many thousands of top scientists working at CERN in Geneva simply as the machine. It should be noted that emphasis is on the word “the” as the LHC is THE largest and most advanced machine ever built. Until now, this $8Bn experiment has been under most people’s radar but as the countdown to switch-on starts, focus is slowly being trained on the biggest scientific experiment ever carried by the human race. Sometime in August if all goes well, the LHC will accelerate two streams of protons around the 27KM long underground ring in opposite directions until they almost reach the speed of light. Then the guys at CERN will make them collide. The resultant impact is intended to re-create the conditions a billionth of a second after the big bang. The primary aim of the 20 year project is to prove the existence of the Higgs Bosun known by some as the God Particle, the basis for everything. In scientific terms, finding the Higgs particle is the key to proving the Standard Model, the current understanding of the universe. This would confirm the theory about how matter acquires mass.

With the unprecedented accumulation of human brain power at CERN it was almost inevitable that huge breakthroughs in technology would take place. It has parallels to a country at war, technology gets driven ahead at a much faster rate. Even before construction had begun, when the LHC was still on the drawing board, CERN had already made a huge impact on architecture and the process of communication generally. If it wasn’t for CERN, you wouldn’t be reading this at all as the Internet was a by-product of CERN research when a method of exchanging electronic data was developed in 1989 to enable the thousands of scientists from all around the world to collaborate. Internet technology was given free of charge to the global community by its creator, Tim Berners-Lee.

The collider and its collisions will feed four separate experiments, ATLAS, ALICE, CMS and LHCb and these will produce some 15 million gigabytes of data a year.

So what’s in this for architecture? The analysis of this vast amount of information requires a greater data transfer than the internet can provide. Enter the Grid. Imagine a freeway on stilts passing over the clogged up streets below allowing huge volumes of commercial traffic to traverse a city uninterrupted by traffic signals, roundabouts or other impairments. That’s the grid. A high capacity commercial network overlaid onto the Internet. The Grid already exists and is being used at CERN. This will be adopted by the wider community at some point as the Internet gets clogged up.

Next on the list is the Cloud. Imagine limitless processing power... renderings taking seconds and minutes instead of hours. The guys at Cern needed more processing power than any computer could provide and the concept of outsourcing “processing” to remote computer farms began to emerge. Sun Microsystems and IBM are already pioneering these facilities. Don’t forget, all of these technologies have been developed before the switch is thrown on the LHC. What could transpire if the experiments succeed? Literally anything is possible from weightless concrete to nano materials with properties that we cannot begin to imagine. On the other hand there is also the possibility that the experiment will create a black hole that will suck the earth into it. But the guys at CERN say their risk assessment shows this as unlikely. Fingers crossed.

Michael Hammond

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