Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Just when all those stories about baguette-bombing birds and vengeful, time-traveling particles coming back from the future were starting to die out, British IT mag the Register reports the LHC has suffered yet another power cut. But their source wasn't CERN, but a cadre of fanboys and fangirls, who have been independently monitoring the status of the collider through the LHC Portal, an independent website that takes CERN pages that might be of interest to the general public and organizes them in an easily navigable list. This includes pages where magnet temperatures, beam status, and other tech stats are updated live. I suppose these exist because it's the easiest way to keep several thousand anxious new mothers and fathers informed of their newborn particle physics experiment.

The amateur accelerator buffs noticed something was up when the pages suddenly went dark in the wee hours of the Swiss morning, then came back up with news of the power cut on the LHC Commissioning Latest News page, which, from its clipped tone, appears to be for a CERNite audience:

01:23 18 kV drop - Meyrin site. LHC off - cryo OK. Several accesses completed by noon. QPS tests. Issues with recovery as filters are put onto electricity lines, tripping various circuits. Magnets switched off for filters in further sectors. ALICE solenoid also tripped. Recovery not before 21:00.

The good news is that those fussy superconducting magnets stayed cool; so far there hasn't been an update. All detectors are currently still on standby, as far as I can tell.

At least part of this story is how it got to be a story at all—CERN has not said anything about the cut on their news pages, not so much as a tweet. The Register is an online IT mag whose science writers generally take a snarky tone in their stories and often refer to scientists, especially CERNites, as "boffins." But now Scientific American has blogged it, referencing the Register. They also apparently got in contact with a "CERN spokeswoman in Geneva, Switzerland" who "was optimistic that the power would be back up by 6:30 p.m. local time."

Labs and universities are usually dying to get some good media coverage, but what must it be like to handle press for an experiment that gets too much, and in an age when diehard fans scan the LHC's vital signs for any flubs, and CERNites blog the latest developments without asking the blessings of the communications office? Matin Durrani, editor of, interviewed James Gillies, head of communications at CERN on this subject (see the video at the top of this post). With public interest in the LHC running so high, and blogs now getting the latest information out to the public so quickly, CERN's own news production, Gillies says, must "be timely, quick, and honest."

Don't even try damage control or hushing things up, in other words; just throw open your doors and invite them in. Which is exactly what CERN did during last year's dramatic switch-on. (The second episode of the web series Colliding Particles, filmed at CERN on that fateful day, really shows you the forest of microphones and videocameras encircling the control room.) This amount of interest in a particle accelerator is really unprecedented and unusual, Gillies says. He's right—there are dozens of accelerators all over the world, with new ones or new versions of old ones being commissioned every year, and no one bats an eyelash. (Gillies credits black holes and Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, as well as the communications office's hard work, for the LHC's popularity.)

"We felt, and I argued very strongly with our management, that it was in our best interest to invite people in to watch the switch-on of the LHC. Now no lab in the world has ever done that before. Switch-ons of big particle accelerators are usually things you do quite quietly. It takes time, things go wrong, we knew that there was a chance that it would go wrong. But there was so much interest that I felt that we would get a much better hearing from the media if we invited them to see the reality of switching on the LHC."

In the end, 340 journalists showed up, and got to see for themselves that commissioning such a big machine can be rife with unexpected problems. Which scientists tend to meet with ingenious solutions.

"it was just an amazing day, but it didn't all go smoothly. When I got in in the morning the first thing I did was talk to Lynn Evans, the projects leader and he said the cyrogenics had gone down and we're out for a few hours. And we were. But people saw that, they saw the process of things going wrong and being fixed, overcoming hurdles and then moving forward."

Gillies also points out, with wry humor, that the World Wide Web, invented at CERN in 1989, has transformed how the public interacts with the lab. Information now flows freely out through blogs, such as Quantum Diaries, US LHC Blogs, Scientific Blogging, and the scores of personal blogs by LHC physicists.

"There is, in my opinion, no doubt that by the time we're ready to announce the discovery of the Higgs boson the whole world will know it," he said.

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