In a few weeks, after much delay, one of the most extraordinary machines ever built by humankind will be switched on. In a scene probably analogous to the inauguration of Stonehenge (which this device superficially resembles, in its circular form as well as probable function), assembled dignitaries and high-priests of science will witness the throwing of a (no doubt wholly symbolic) switch and a new era of particle physics will begin.
Then, about 300 feet beneath the Swiss-French border, in the shadow of the Alps near Geneva, in a tunnel roughly the length and diameter of the London Circle Line, small packets of atoms will be whirled around at unimaginable velocities by magnets of unfathomable power, to be smashed into each other in a series of miniature, titanic cataclysms that will mimic, for just an iota of time, the flashes of Creation itself.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — for that is the name of this gargantuan edifice — is nothing less than a cathedral of knowledge, perhaps the modern equivalent of the great stone observatories of the ancient world. Like Stonehenge, it was built using the resources of a people who for the most part will know little, understand less and care not at all about whatever mind-bending conclusions the scientists at CERN, the European Nuclear Research Centre, derive from its workings. And this arguably doesn’t matter.
The LHC, which cost about €4 billion — or more, or less, depending on whom you believe — is one of those projects that divides the human race neatly into the large majority who tut and talk about money wasted, and the small minority who realise that, without machines like this, we are as nothing. For the Large Hadron Collider, whose job is to probe the fundamental structure of matter, the universe’s creation, the nature of mass and the truth about that elusive substance physicists call “dark matter”, is a symbol of what it means to be human — a triumph of our civilisation. That’s the good news; the bad news is that the mindset of which the LHC is a symbol and which has been in the ascendant for more than three centuries is now under threat.
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