So, the LHC breaks new ground again. Not just in fundamental physics and accelerator technology, but in doing science live in public, or at least so it feels.
We had hoped for collisions for breakfast but it didn’t work out that way. The false starts reminded me of frustrating night-shifts on the ZEUS experiment in Hamburg where I did my PhD. They aren’t unusual on a new collider, but given the major accident in 2008, plus the huge public interest, it was a very nervous morning.
I guess this is how space scientists feel when launch delays happen in mid countdown. Injecting and ramping the beam energy feels like the initiation of a countdown sequence and we had to go through it three times before we finally launched the high energy physics programme of the LHC. For lunchtime. Good enough. Fantastic, in fact.
I was in London, not CERN, and seeing how crowded the ATLAS control room looked, that was a good choice.
In truth, while maybe up to 100 people really have something vital to do in the early running of the ATLAS detector at any one time, there are 2500 people on the collaboration contributing skills ranging from software, electronic and mechanical engineering to theoretical physics. Trying to cram everyone into the control room for the first events would be impossible and unhelpful. Good job CERN invented the web, so there was the live feed, results available instantaneously, and of course emails and phone calls from colleagues on the ground.
What was achieved was, as planned, the storage and acceleration of hair-thin proton beams in the LHC, bringing them up to an energy three-and-a-half time higher than the previous record and then making them collide head on. And then record the results.This is only half the eventual LHC energy, but more than enough to break into the territory of unknown physics. We now plan to do this routinely for about a year, collecting enough data to let us thoroughly explore the landscape we now have access to. Then we will pause, upgrade, and double the energy again.
I seemed to spend much of the day on radio and TV, including ITN, BBC and Channel 4 news. After the nerves of watching the LHC operators coax the beams into collision, and hoping ATLAS would record the collisions well, being interviewed on live TV was (almost) a breeze.
I really hope that having a science story like the LHC develop in public over a few years helps people get a clearer view of scientists, and of the erratic but real process of science, that perhaps makes it easier to understand the context of some of the headlines on the science behind more immediate and controversial issues like health or climate. We shall see.
We aren’t going to find the Higgs boson, or understand whether that is how particles acquire mass, tomorrow. The first thing I will be doing is trying to understand and measure the “jets” formed from quarks and gluons smashed out of the protons. If there are new particles or forces at these high energies, they may show up in the jets, and in particular we have a plan to use the internal structure of jets to search for the Higgs.
Hopefully we will have some preliminary, simple results for the big conference in July, but in any case it will be a long haul – several years, lots of hard, often tedious, work – before we have the final word. The LHC will be producing new physics for at least a decade.
It is worth pointing out that the LHC programme, and the success of CERN, absolutely depends on the UK, as well as on our major European partners. The big role played by UK scientists and industry is the result of far-sighted and consistent investment from successive governments, both Labour and Conservative. If we want more world-leading big science projects in future, such vision needs to be maintained through good and bad economic times.
It won’t remain on the main new bulletins all the time of course, but we are going to stay interested in the LHC for a long long time, and I hope some of that interest continues to be shared by the people who pay the bills. Stay with us as we explore the Tera-electron-volt universe – lots of us will be only too keen to tell you what’s going on.