Monday, November 09, 2009

Particle physics pop-up

Nerdy science books enter a new dimension: the third. (Photo by Fons Rademakers/CERN)

Stumped by what to get for that picky particle physics buff on your Hannukah list? You're in luck. CERN is about to debut a technolust-inspiring souvenir that's science lesson and work of art all in one: a pop-up book of the ATLAS detector. Folded between its covers are Geneva, both above ground and 100 meters below, the Big Bang, and the complex architecture of ATLAS.

The ATLAS detector at CERN is a vast cathedral of electronics, wires, and materials—from semiconductor to liquid argon to scintillating plastic—enshrining the spot where two protons collide. It's not a single detector, but a series of detectors, packed around the interaction point Russian-doll style. Together they'll capture every last flicker and trace of the particles hurled out from the collision and spit out this information as hard data—about 27 CDs worth per minute.

Build your own ATLAS detector! (Photo by Papadakis Publisher.)

Anton Radevsky, a paper engineer whose pop-up ouevre includes Modern Architecture and the Wild West, reproduced the innards of ATLAS in paper panels so intricately patterned they look like stained glass windows. You can unpack and fold ATLAS's components yourself and slot them carefully in place around the interaction point—a pleasure, surely, for accelerator physicist wannabes.

As ATLAS physicists Pippa Wells quips in the above video posted on YouTube, the feat takes about a minute, but ATLAS was 15 years in the making, from concept to commissioning. And while the book only requires a bit of uncomplicated folding, the actual construction required lowering ATLAS piece by piece from the surface down through two shafts to the tunnel floor, 100 meters below ground, and then assembling it. Here's the whole process condensed down to a minute of action:

As CERN readies itself for the magic moment when protons circulate in the tunnels and collide, tensions are high and excitement is building. It's taken more than a year for the thousands of people involved in the project to return the LHC to the point it was at last September, and the media and public seem skeptical that it will all come through. The LHC seems to be all about bigness and grandeur—it's 27 kilometers in circumference, and a single bit of ATLAS weighed 250 tons—but it's incredibly delicate and vulnerable. Last Thursday CERN made news when a bird snacking on a chunk of baguette dropped it into a high voltage component, causing a power cut. Cooled magnets threatened to warm up; the press cackled gleefully.

The accelerator is due to fire up later this month, and everyone's thinking the same thing: will it work? Bill Bryson, in a refreshingly down-to-earth piece of writing chronicling his recent visit to the lab, has it from the mouth of the LHC's head of operations: yes, without a doubt.

While you wait, though, better get on with that Hannukah shopping: you can preorder "Journey to the Heart of Matter" (not yet available on Amazon) at the website of publisher Papadakis.

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