Last week, a power cut caused by a malfunction in an electrical substation made headlines around the world. Such things happen all the time and the media rarely take notice, but this one was different. The substation in question was one that supplied part of the LHC’s cryogenic systems, and the media spotted it instantly.
What’s more, the notion that the power cut might have been caused by a piece of bread dropped by a passing bird on the substation in question started to spread. A power cut suddenly became a story too good to ignore. Before you could say ‘crumbs’, the press office phones were ringing off the hook as journalists demanded to know how it could be that a piece of bread could lay low the world’s mightiest machine. Of course, no such thing had happened, and a statement was rapidly concocted.
To this day, we do not know what caused the power cut, but it is true that feathers and bread were found at the site.
The truth about birds and baguettes is that two sectors of the LHC warmed by a few degrees while the substation was repaired, and were then cooled back to 1.9K. There was no damage, and no delay. Had we been running, we’d have lost a day or two’s worth of beam time, which is nothing unusual when operating a frontier research machine like the LHC. Power cuts are, of course, something that the LHC has been designed to cope with, as have all its predecessors.
The moral of this story is that CERN and particle physics are in the spotlight like never before. The great adventure that is the LHC has caught the public’s imagination, and there’s a great thirst for information about what we’re doing. Headlines about birds and baguettes may be uncomfortable to live with, but it’s always worth remembering that this kind of attention is ultimately for the good. Soon, the headlines should be turning from birds to b-quarks, and from baguettes to bosons. It’s a day we’re all looking forward to.