Partially Attended

an irregularly updated blog by Ian Mulvany

Why the LHC is not really that impressive

Sun Dec 21, 2008

658 Words

Yesterday the Guardian had a special pull out section dedicated to the

LHC. If you browse through the articles you find lots of comments along

the lines of

"temple to mystery and imagination", "a journey to the edge of

understanding". "a modern cathedral to our relationship with the

universe", and so on. From the superlatives that are being written one

would think that the LHC is the best thing to happen to enlightenment

since some fat chinese guy sat beneath a tree, and that it is the summit

of human imagination, achievement and art. Well, I just don't buy all

of that crap.

Reading these articles got me thinking about what the LHC is, and

fundamentally it's just a larger detector than what we already had

before. As I see it, it's an inevitable extension of what you do if you

want to measure something that we already know how to measure (particle

tracks), with better precision over a higher energy range.

The bottom line is that we have been doing this since the 1920's.

If you look at it as just being an artifact then it is neat, but there

are many other piece of artistry that required as much imagination,

effort, skill and chutzpah to bring together. The moon landings are one,

the regularity of probes landing on mars another. The engineering

required to make a large city like New York work always blows my mind,

and that emerged from a bottom up self organization of 15 million souls

trying to find a way to survive in an area of land a little too small

for them all.

As we look around the world at the things we as a species have built

there are many such artifacts that can inspire our awe and wonder. I

don't think that the LHC can lay a claim to be at the pinnacle, though

no doubt it is a good example of a big complicated object that make

people look small when they stand beside it.

There is something to wonder at in all of this, and that is the idea

behind the inevitability of something like the LHC. That idea is the

atomic and quantum electrodynamical nature of the world. In that there

is something to be proud of as a species. I don't see the LHC as being a

radical departure from this idea, but rather an object whose existence

is quintessentially rooted in that idea.

One could almost argue that the LHC represents a failure of the

imagination. We are faced with limits to our ability to test the

mathematics that we have written down against the atoms that we write

with. We cannot tease apart the Fynemann diagrams to tell us more about

the world, and so we resort to a bigger hammer rather than a more subtle

approach that might look to other ways to coax the mysteries of the

universe out of their hiding places.

There have been some papers that have come out recently looking for

connections in the physics of super fluids with the imagined state of

the early universe, the idea being that looking at the behavior of

vortices in super cooled liquids could demonstrate identical physics to

the phases of matter at the point of various decouplingings in energy

scales. It's pretty clear that these models are yet toy models, but

perhaps they point out an orthogonal direction to building massive atom


I want to be clear that I do applaud the work of the thousands of people

working at Cern, and I do think that the billions of euro that something

like this costs is more than worth the investment. I appreciate how hard

it is to deal with systematics on something of this scale, and it is a

minor miracle, but I just don't think that the artifact deserves unconstrained

adulation over the ideas that is reflects.

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