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Final countdown for collider

LHCb Collaboration / CERN
This computerized diagram shows the tracks of subatomic particles moving through
part of the Large Hadron Collider's LHCb detector during this weekend's test.

Europe's CERN particle-physics lab says the countdown to the startup of the world's biggest atom-smasher in two weeks is proceeding "without a hitch."

Well, almost.

CERN says the past weekend's "final test" of the system for sending beams of protons into the Large Hadron Collider's 17-mile-round (27-kilometer-round) ring was successful. During the test, a bunch of protons was sent into the ring's supercooled magnet system and sent about 2 miles (3 kilometers) down the track counterclockwise. That followed up on a test in the clockwise direction two weeks earlier.

"Thanks to a fantastic team, both the clockwise and counterclockwise tests went without a hitch," LHC project leader Lyn Evans said in a news release. "We look forward to a resounding success when we make our first attempt to send a beam all the way around the LHC."

The green spot shows protons
inside the targeted area during this
weekend's test of the Large
Hadron Collider's counterclockwise
beam synchronization system.

However, James Gillies, CERN's chief spokesman, told me that physicists are planning a do-over of the weekend's beam synchronization test, just to make sure everything is in working order.

"They learned something this weekend, I understand," he said. He didn't have the details, but an online recap of the test indicates that the team had to work through some difficulties with steering the beam and keeping it from dispersing.

In between the beam tests, workers have been checking out the rest of the hardware for the $10 billion particle collider, which is arguably the biggest physics experiment on earth. Gillies said the physicists behind the Compact Muon Solenoid are finishing the installation of their massive detector, which contains twice as much iron as the Eiffel Tower.

Meanwhile, the LHCb detector, which is designed like a telescope to track bits of matter and antimatter, recorded its first hits during the weekend's test. The subatomic particles zooming through the detector's beamline were actually thrown off by proton collisions with a "beam stopper" set up some distance away, Gillies said.

All this activity is taking place about 300 feet (100 meters) underground, inside a tunnel and a series of artificial caverns beneath the Swiss-French border. Despite the hiccups, nothing appears to stand in the way of the LHC's official turn-on, scheduled for 9 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET) Sept. 10.

Why the big deal?
The Large Hadron Collider represents the science world's latest, greatest attempt to smash its way into the mysteries of the universe: Beams of protons will eventually collide with the energy of two bullet trains - spawning sprays of subatomic debris that are certain to lead to new discoveries.

The discoveries may not lead directly to building a better iPhone, but they could lay the theoretical groundwork for new medical therapies, energy sources or ways of seeing the world - as past particle-physics experiments have done.

One experiment at the LHC, known as ALICE, seeks to re-create the conditions that existed just an instant after the big bang that gave rise to the universe as we know it. LHCb's researchers want to understand why matter won out over antimatter after the creation of the cosmos.

But the LHC's main goal - targeted by the Compact Muon Solenoid as well as the ATLAS detector - is to fill the gaps that currently exist in the Standard Model, the grand theory governing the subatomic structure of the universe. That may mean finding traces of extra dimensions, or a whole new class of supersymmetric particles, or the causes behind dark matter and dark energy.

Filling the scientific gaps would almost certainly include getting a fix on the Higgs boson, which some physicists have dubbed the "God particle." The Higgs is the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that hasn't yet been found, and it could hold the key to understanding why some particles (like protons) have mass while others (like photons) do not. 

The debate over black holes
Then there's the little matter of ultra-microscopic black holes: Detecting such knots of concentrated matter/energy is seen as a bit of a scientific long shot. But the possibility has captured the public attention far more than the Higgs boson, no doubt in part because of a civil lawsuit claiming that such black holes could grow big enough to gobble up our planet.

The legal challenge, which claims the LHC's operators haven't adequately considered the doomsday scenarios, is due to come up in Hawaii federal court on Sept. 2, just a week before the scheduled startup. Arguing on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy, lawyers from the Justice Department are seeking to have the suit thrown out on narrow legal grounds. They argue, for example, that the case is moot because the federal government has finished its contribution to LHC construction.

I dwelled on the legal back-and-forth last week, but since then there have been these developments:

  • On Friday, Justice Department lawyers filed a brief saying that the plaintiffs in the case, former nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner and Spanish science writer Luis Sancho, missed an Aug. 15 deadline to challenge the government's motion to dismiss the case. As a result, the court should "enter a final judgment terminating this litigation," the federal lawyers said.
  • Wagner has filed a document dated Aug. 20 that says the suit should proceed because the federal government is continuing to fund research on the now-completed LHC. He also addresses other objections from the government and adds some new claims about the potential for a fusion-fueled blow-up, as you can read on Wagner's Web site. Was the document filed in a timely fashion? The government argues that it wasn't, but that's up to the judge to decide.

  • Attorney Martin Kaufman has gotten the court's go-ahead to file an amended friend-of-the-court brief from three prominent physicists - Harvard's Richard Wilson as well as Nobel laureates Sheldon Glashow and Frank Wilczek. The physicists side with the government and say the suit should be thrown out.

Even if the court allows the lawsuit to go forward, the LHC startup will likely go forward as well. CERN's plan calls for the first proton beams to be sent all the way around at relatively low energy in one direction only on Sept. 10, with the testing phase moving on to the first collisions about a month later, Gillies said.

The energy of the collisions will gradually be increased, but even if all goes according to plan, the LHC wouldn't reach full power until next year.

There's lots of good stuff about the Large Hadron Collider on the Internet: CERN offers an hourlong talk by one of its top theoretical physicists, John Ellis, in which he takes note of the blog-driven doomsday debate. On the Symmetry Breaking blog, science writer Glennda Chui points to 1,600 pages' worth of technical documentation for the LHC. Ars Technica refers to the LHC in the context of the search for dark matter. Gail Collins even finds a way to get the LHC as well as the political conventions in the first paragraph of her latest op-ed column for The New York Times. Now that's a collision! 

Update for 9:40 p.m. ET: I've updated this item to reflect the fact that the court docket now includes Wagner's memorandum in opposition to the government's motion for dismissal or summary judgment.