When photographs of the Large Hadron Collider at the Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire (CERN) were first released to the media in 2008, there was a collective sigh of near-orgiastic pleasure from print and web editors alike. From Time Magazine to Boston Globe’s famous “Big Picture” blog, super-sized photo essays of CERN’s magnificent images of the LHC were printed and posted by the dozen, with nary more than a couple of captions, or, at best a dull, utterly uninformative article with some cut-and-paste press release copy thrown in for good measure. A few publications attempted to provide something more substantial, to understand the inner workings of the LHC experiment and explain, haltingly, to their readers what it was all about, even while the images dominated. The visuals were the stars of the show.
More astonishing, though, was that the architecture and design mags, those who earn their daily bread by documenting and explaining the design and engineering of buildings and structures all over the world, did exactly the same thing. But a picture is only worth a thousand words if people understand what it is that they’re looking at. The LHC is perhaps the most complex and fascinating engineering project of our time and not one architecture publication bothered to tell the story of how it was built. Instead, as Michelangelo presented the Sistine Chapel to Pope Julius II, so too were we presented with images of creation, awe and wonder, as if the LHC was fashioned out of thin air. Even the language used by journalists to describe the experiment and its aims was resonant of Godly creation: here was the machine that would discover the “God particle” if it existed to be discovered.
Perhaps it was felt that the mystery would have been lessened with a proper explanation of its history, its construction and its aims. Perhaps the assumption was, as so often, particularly with mainstream news media, that science needs to be sexed up for an ignorant and largely uninterested audience. The photographs of the LHC were presented as beautiful propaganda to sell an idea of scientific progress to the general public. Perhaps this seems an over-reaction, but in 2008 a group of scientists attempted to seek an injunction with the European Court of Human Rights to block CERN from turning the LHC on over their fears that the collider would create mini black holes which might suck up our planet from the inside out. And as CERN is a multi-national concern, with 20 European member states, funded both by member government budgets as well as by private research institutions and public universities, surely funders will sleep more soundly at night if public opinion is favourably disposed toward the project. Not that I’m positing this as an active PR strategy on the part of CERN, but surely it makes more sense to have the public mystified and hypnotized by beautiful visuals of the machine, rather than bewildered and terrified by the potentially black-hole creating experiments happening 100 meters beneath France and Switzerland.
“The beauty of such machines owes much to design – their cleanliness and wondrous functionality. It owes even more to the sense of mystery that surrounds them.” This is Mark Feeney of the aforementioned Boston Globe on supercolliders, more specifically on images of supercolliders. The reason that there’s such a ‘sense of mystery’ surrounding such supercolliders must in part be because newspaper and magazine editors decided that disseminating spectacular and aesthetically pleasing images of the collider would be far more impressive than trying to tell the story of how it was built or what it does – things too complicated for the public to understand, presumably. Hence, the typical LHC news headline emphasized the visual to hook readers with big-picture images – compelling, perhaps, but totally uninformative.
For a start, images are silent. The photographs of the LHC don’t convey any of the messy reality of the years of construction that went into the making of the machine, let alone the loudness of the day-to-day noise of their operations. The symmetry, the intricacy, the bright blues, yellows and greens of supporting scaffolding and stairwells, the unbelievable hugeness make even the amateurish snaps by CERN staffers look impressive. The long-exposure, large format photographs taken by professionals are simply stunning. They impart the same awe-filled wonder as something like an image of one of Saturn’s many beautiful moonstaken by the Cassini spacecraft, only the wonder is exponentially increased by the underlying recognition that we did this – maybe not you and I – but that human beings created and built such incredible machinery. It’s hardly surprising that these photos tell a story that most people who encounter them are unable to read as anything more than pleasing aesthetics or as a semi-mythical machine.
In a postmodern world, aesthetics is a sticky issue. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when good taste was much easier to define in any given society, aesthetics was seen as a new kind of science of taste (despite the fact that it wasn’t actually very scientific). For the intellectual aesthete in 18th-century France, for instance, beauty came from nature and the best artists were those who managed to imitate, yet surpass in sublimity, the proportions and patterns of nature. On the other side of the Channel, William Hogarth and Edmund Burke took a more analytical approach, reducing beauty to a checklist of necessary attributes. Intriguingly, the photographs that have appeared of the LHC tick all of the boxes for Hogarth’s aesthetic ideals as outlined in his 1753 Analysis of Beauty: fitness for form, variety, symmetry, distinctness, intricacy and magnitude.
If you know where to look, it’s easy to see how these approaches to aesthetics influenced some of the great Victorian engineering projects. One of the best examples can be found in an unassuming building in southeast London: Joseph Bazalgette’s Crossness Pumping Station, constructed between 1859 and 1865. Despite the fact that the interior of this remarkable building (Pevsner called it a “Victorian cathedral of ironwork”) would only be seen by station workers, Crossness’ interior was designed to be beautiful; aesthetic considerations were essential, not an incidental byproduct. The difference between Crossness and the LHC is marked. Though some have suggested that the LHC is descended from the great engineering projects of the nineteenth century, or even representative of the legacy of such projects, I would argue that it is not. Leaving aside the notion of ornamentation as being superfluous to the requirements of purely functional engineering, despite what some astrophysicists might have you believe, it’s hard to see the discovery of the Higgs boson as immediately life changing as indoor plumbing.
If Crossness represented the pinnacle of engineering achievement in its time, it’s noteworthy that the station was highly functional, and yet Bazalgette must have felt that the ornate ornamentation only added to the grandeur of the heart of London’s new sewage system. One hundred years later, after the rise and fall of Modernism, attitudes to ornament have significantly changed. The LHC is a project of such technically demanding engineering that one suspects that it would have been all but impossible to design it to be anything other than purely functional. This only makes the magnetic appeal of the photos of the LHC so curious. And the photos do appeal. They posses a striking aesthetic quality, the cold symmetry and vast scale of this perfectly designed machine is uncanny, sublime. Mathematicians and physicists often speak of beauty as an essential quality of the best theories, equations and experiments, so it’s hardly surprising that the machine that was built to plug the holes in physics’ beautiful theory – the Standard Model – should be, in its own way, as beautiful and as simple as the theory itself. The photographs of the LHC are a calling card for the possibilities inherent in human ingenuity.
The story of the LHC wouldn’t be complete without an account of its design and build. Lyndon Evans, project director of the LHC project, said that the complexity of the engineering was so great that the team essentially had to make it up as they went along. When Peter Higgs, the Scottish professor who posited the theory of the Higgs boson back in 1964, first visited the LHC experiment in 2008 even he found the sheer scale of the detectors to be overwhelming.
The LHC wasn’t the first supercollider to be built on this site, which is hardly surprising given that CERN has been around since 1953, but it is the largest and most powerful in a series of particle accelerators that allows scientists to investigate the structure of matter at its tiniest dimensions. Before the LHC there was the LEP, or the Large Electron Positron collider, which was the most recent active collider on CERN’s site and ran from 1989 to 2001. Early on in discussions about building the LHC, it was decided – primarily as a cost-saving measure – to utilize as much existing infrastructure as possible. There’s a very simple explanation to answer the question of why the LHC exists in a 27km circumference tunnel 100 meters below Switzerland and France, and that’s because the LEP did so before it. One of the reasons why the LHC is such an impressive experiment is because, using the geometry of the existing tunnel from the previous collider, scientists were able to achieve an increase of 60% in the magnetic field, pushing the design of associated components – the superconducting magnets and their superfluid helium cooling systems – to a completely new and untested world.
The fascinating thing about the LHC’s design isn’t that it’s overly complicated, but that the scale of the machine and its detectors are so vast and that the precision required by the geological circumstances and by the materials used in the making of the LHC are so absolute and exact that it’s a miracle we were able to make it happen at all. To simplify the function of the LHC to its most basic elements, essentially it’s a graduated system of different proton accelerators (the protons are the stripped-down nuclei of the hydrogen atom, from the family of particles called hadrons, hence the Large Hadron Collider) which increase the velocity and mass of the proton packets before segueing into the two counter-clockwise beams of incredibly fast protons that then collide into each other at the four detector points along the ring. To get the protons moving fast enough, as near as possible to the speed of light (though recent experiments suggest that they may perhaps move faster than the speed of light), to create the energy required for big-bang-esque collisions, the proton beams are accelerated by a pulsed electric field that sees them travel around the LHC at over 11,000 times per second. To make this all possible, the beams are guided around their circular orbits by1,800 incredibly powerful superconducting magnets, all of which require 130 tons of superfluid helium to keep the magnets cool. Some of the stories about engineering complications involved in the construction of the detector caverns are incredible, but for me, there’s not much else that comes close to the exactitude required when working with materials of such a unique nature as superconducting magnets and superfluid helium. Superfluid helium is one of the most astonishing substances I’ve ever encountered: at 2.17K (minus 271 degrees Celsius, or nearing absolute zero), a remarkable transition occurs in the properties of liquid helium. As the temperature drops, liquid helium looks as if it’s boiling until, at the magical “lambda point” of 2.17K, the liquid appears to stop boiling and goes completely still: the liquid helium has become a superfluid, a zero viscosity fluid which can move rapidly through any porous apparatus. A vacuum container which seems to be leak tight could suddenly ooze helium everywhere as the superfluid leaked out through microscopic holes. You can see where this might create enormous problems for the LHC’s engineers.
Along with these challenges, the construction of the two new caverns required for the ATLAS and CMS detectors posed a different set of engineering problems. The vastness of the cavern that had to be created for the ATLAS experiment is difficult to grasp from the images alone. Some 35 metre wide, 55 metre long and 40 metre high, the nave of Canterbury Cathedral would fit neatly inside. Even the crossover chamber on the Eurotunnel railway, with its puny 22 metre girth, pales in comparison to the scale of the ATLAS cavern. Carved out of the Geneva basin rock, once the top half of the ATLAS cavern had been excavated, it was concreted, and the resulting vault was suspended from steel cables anchored at various points in the ground rock above to provide necessary stability. Excavation of the remainder of the cavern was completed in a later stage.
If these caverns were being built for any other facility and for any other purpose, they would have been repositioned to ensure a location with the best possible geology, but as Timothy Watson, the Deputy Group Leader of CERN’s in-house civil engineering team said, “we didn’t have this luxury, we had to work to the cavern parameters required by the physicists and in the geology at the given points on the existing accelerator ring.” This is why, when constructing the CMS cavern a vast amount of groundwater made excavation of the access shaft impossible, a ring of freeze pipes were fitted around the shaft and filled with liquid nitrogen. The liquid nitrogen formed a wall of ice inside the shaft so that it was then able to be excavated and lined with concrete, allowing the rest of the cavern construction to continue. As if that weren’t enough, during the preparation of the CMS site, the foundations of a 4th-century A.D. Roman farm were discovered, meaning that work had to stop in order to allow the requisite archaeological investigations to be made.
The LHC’s four detectors have their own part to play in this story, given that each was designed to help solve specific unanswered questions within the Standard Model: ATLAS, A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS (toroid is a fancy mathematical name for a doughnut-shaped object), and CMS, the Compact Muon Solenoid detector, are the two larger all-purpose detectors capable of observing the unexpected, though focused primarily on the discovery of the Higgs boson. Then there are two smaller detectors running more specialized experiments: the LHCb, “b” for the Beauty Experiment, designed to study why the universe is asymmetrical when it comes to matter particles and their antimatter cousins, and ALICE, A Large Ion Collider Experiment, which collides beams of heavy lead ions to produce states of matter similar to those that existed for a few millionths of a second after the big bang.
The Standard Model is physics’ grand unifying theory that explains the fundamental particles and physical laws that govern matter, energy, space and time in the world we live in today. It’s a tidy theory that explains the constituents of matter and the forces between them, and yet the Standard Model is incomplete – only five percent of the universe is actually made of the normal, visible matter described is described by it. The other ninety-five percent of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy whose fundamental nature is a complete mystery. Of course, dark matter is an entirely theoretical concept that we don’t at present have any evidence for, invented, basically, to make equations balance. But even if we discover that the Higgs boson doesn’t exist or that the other 95 percent of the universe is made up of something other than dark matter, even if the Standard Model turns out to be a complete flop at the quantum level, the results from the experiments of the four LHC detectors should still be able to assist us in that if they don’t provide us with the answers at least they’ll provide us with the next set of questions.
Despite the difficulties involved in telling the story of the construction and composition of the LHC through visual representation, we aren’t, in fact, dealing with some kind of semi-mythical machine. This superconductor is a marvel of engineering with a very specific scientific purpose and function: to make breakthroughs that will resolve at least some of the basic issues in the Standard Model – to discover the Higgs boson (if it hasn’t done so already), the particle that theoretically gives mass to the others, or else to discover what physics beyond the Standard Model replaces it. There are also hopes that the LHC experiments will observe particles of dark matter, and perhaps shed some light on the differences between matter and antimatter which will hopefully help explain the mechanism whereby matter came to dominate over antimatter in the early universe.
Look again at these photographs. They are indeed beautiful; the necessity of a certain precision in the design and engineering led to the creation of the gorgeous images wee see circulated throughout the press. A multitude of factors – scientific requirements, geology, engineering, accessibility – dictated the aesthetics, so perhaps maybe there is something to Hogarth’s theory of beauty, but we should be able to appreciate these images, and what they represent, for more than their awe-inspiring vastness and symmetrical beauty. The wonder of mystery doesn’t have to vanish with an increase in knowledge.
Originally published in Domus, February, 2012.