One can almost hear the tone of surprise in Monday's press release from the enormous particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN for short. "Particles Have Gone Half Way Round the LHC," reads the headline, referring to the Large Hadron Collider.
At first glance, it seems odd that the people at the LHC would find such a partial particle peregrination worthy of triumphalism, no matter how tepid. But given that the launch of the ambitious experiments slated for the multi-billion euro science kit is now over a year behind schedule, the LHC has been starved of anything positive to say at all.
Indeed, the periodic hiccups on the way to functionality have become something of a running joke in the media coverage of CERN. This week has seen two new punchlines added to the list. On Monday, CERN announced that a bird carrying a hunk of French bread accidentally dropped its snack on an external power generator last week, creating a short-circuit that briefly shut down the accelerator's all-important cooling system.
Ties to al-Qaida
And in Bern, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office confirmed on Monday that it has opened an investigation into a French CERN physicist suspected of having ties to al-Qaida. The Swiss case comes in addition to preliminary charges already filed in France against the 32-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin, whose identity has not been revealed.
French officials have said that the suspect has admitted to having communicated with al-Qaida regarding potential terror attacks.
But if he were planning an attack on the particle accelerator, he perhaps need not have bothered. Scientists hope that the Large Hadron Collider will provide insights into the behavior of quantum particles, many times smaller than the protons, neutrons and electrons which physicists once thought were the tiniest components of all matter. Some hope to find the as-yet theoretical particle known as Higgs boson -- also referred to as the "God particle" because it is presumed to have been present at the Big Bang. Others are looking for verification as to the veracity of string theory, which posits the existence of additional dimensions beyond the four currently known.
Hopes were high for the LHC, the most powerful particle accelerator ever built. Fully 27 kilometers (17 miles) in circumference, the ultra-complex machine is designed to speed up sub-atomic particles to 99.9999991 percent of the speed of light. But problems started almost immediately after it was fired up in September 2008, when an electrical failure resulted in damage that has taken a year to fix.
Sci-Fi Time Travel
Indeed, progress has been so slow that some mathematicians have even posited that the future is sabotaging the present in order to prevent the creation of the God particle. Theoretical physicists think the Higgs boson is responsible for turning energy into mass, thus making the particle responsible for creating all the mass in the universe.
"It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck," Danish physicist Dr. Holger Bech Nielsen -- who, together with his Japanese colleague Dr. Masao Ninomiya, created the bizarre, sci-fi time-travel theory -- told the New York Times last month.
CERN scientists insist that the machine is only experiencing "teething problems" and that, after this week's bird incident, ongoing repairs to the accelerator were delayed by only a few hours. Proton collisions are now set to begin prior to Christmas.
In contrast to last year, however, few now fear that the LHC might cause a black hole to open up and swallow the world, as some had theorized in 2008. After all, the energy achieved by speedy protons will be much lower than originally intended. Rather than the 7 trillion electron volts initially hoped for, the collisions this year will be at a measly 1.1 trillion electron volts, barely higher than at CERN's rival accelerator, the Tevatron outside Chicago.