The LHC: a miracle in the making by Frank Close

After a quarter of a century of dreaming and planning, designing and building, at last we are about to see the LHC completed.

Frank Close, Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics, Oxford University, is a former head of CERN’s Communication Group. He recently visted CERN to give lectures to the summer students.

Already the excitement is gathering at the prospect of what will be discovered: possibly the Higgs Boson, or supersymmetry, or even things that no one has thought of. The world’s media are already abuzz with anticipation. But I feel that we are getting ahead of ourselves. The visions of the new world will hopefully be tomorrow’s stories; today let’s reflect on what has been achieved at even getting to this point and recall what it was like long ago when the dream began: in those bygone days, were you sure that the LHC would ever be?

We all expect it will work, particle physics has a great track record in such things, but even twenty years ago it was not clear whether the mountain was conquerable or beyond our abilities. If you want a machine to show how the universe was in the moments of creation, you don’t find it in the scientific instrument catalogue: you have to build it yourself. And immediately there are problems. Beyond the ability of a single continent this would be a truly global endeavour; unparalleled in ambition, in political and financial challenges. Back then, the state of the art in cryogenics, magnets, information technology, and a whole range of science and engineering was far short of what would be required for the LHC to work. The whole enterprise relied on the belief that when the best minds in the world focus on a common goal, bright ideas would emerge to solve the problems, any one of which could have proved a show-stopper. There were many who feared that particle physics had bitten off more than it could chew; that the LHC was over-ambitious; that we had at last reached the practical boundary to human knowledge and exploration.

Today we are almost there. When the current is turned on, and the beams circulate through the vacuum tubes with magnets colder than outer space, intensely enough to smash into one another, and the gargantuan detectors speed signals to the waiting computers, that will be the moment we’ve waited for. To me the LHC’s existence is a miracle; the discoveries will be like icing on the cake. So on that glorious day, before wondering what visions of new frontiers will be revealed, pause for a moment and remember the thousands of brave people who made this amazing new wonder of the world become a reality. And celebrate this symbol to human endeavour.