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CERN's big collider now in action

The first particle beam successfully traverses the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest machine. Still to come: creating mini black holes.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

On Wednesday morning, the first particle beam was successfully sent around the full circuit of the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN.

The new science resulting from this grand experiment will turn up in the coming weeks and months, but what Wednesday's event did prove was that the world's largest machine works. Part of that machine is the cathedral-size Atlas detector, one of two general-purpose detectors (the other is the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS) in the LHC.

Atlas' development and construction benefited from a great amount of U.K. involvement, particularly that of the Science & Technology Facilities Council, which held an event in Westminster, England to see, via video link, the LHC being initiated. There, event attendees watched the first successful beam circulation in the LHC, which took just less than an hour to complete.

"This is the biggest high of my career so far," said Professor Jon Butterworth of University College London, who heads up the United Kingdom's involvement in the Atlas detector. "I didn't think they'd do it so quickly and smoothly."

"This is the first time [the LHC] has functioned as a single machine," Butterworth noted. He added that, although no new science as such came from Wednesday's events, the machine "shows a lot of cutting-edge technology, so in that sense, it is a breakthrough...We'll probably be getting science out of this thing for 20 years," Butterworth said.

"We were all a bit apprehensive, but they got the first beam around in just under an hour," said Peter Barratt, communications chief of the Science & Technology Facilities Council, which distributes U.K. government funding for scientific research. "We're now looking forward to the energy ramping up." He also added that it was "mind-blowing" for particle physics to be getting the international exposure granted by coverage of the LHC.

The STFC will continue to fund the LHC through the United Kingdom's subscription to CERN and the funding of research scientists, Barratt said. "Once we start receiving the data [from the LHC], those guys need to sit down and start analyzing it," he said. "Maybe they will overturn the physics textbooks, as they are at the moment--who knows?"

"It's getting real," David Sankey, a particle physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, England, said in reaction to Wednesday's successful LHC initiation. Comparing the event to starting an engine, he said: "This is the turnover, and it went well."

Sankey pointed out how the 20 years of development and preparation that had gone into the LHC continued right up until recently. "This has been a long time coming," he said. "Even last week, people were working in [the CMS detector]. They were working flat out up to this deadline, and it worked."

One of the most important technological advances to come out of CERN's work has been its contributions to grid computing, which involves using large numbers of loosely coupled computers over a great area to share the load of handling large amounts of data. Such distributed methods are necessary for analyzing the anticipated 15 petabytes of data that are expected to come out of the LHC every year.

Imense is one company that has benefited from the U.K.'s part of the greater grid, GridPP. A spin-off from Cambridge University, Imense has used the technology to develop its content-based image search systems, which it hopes will catch on as a way to find images based on keywords, even from unannotated photographs. The company was helped in this by the STFC, which granted it use of 1 percent of GridPP.

Two company representatives were at Wednesday's event. Chris Town described the LHC initiation as "exciting", noting that all sorts of nonphysics applications are possible on the grid. David Sinclair added that projects such as the LHC "generate people with the skill set we [in companies such as Imense] need."

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from Westminster, England.

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