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Chips, the Universe and Everything

We enter the cavernous halls of CERN, ostensibly to hear about Intel's quad-core processors, but really to ogle at massive particle physics experiments and track down the world's first Web server
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1 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Last week, Intel took ZDNet UK to the European, Middle East and African launch of its new quad-core chips. As the company is a partner of the CERN European high-energy physics laboratory — and sponsor of its Openlab data processing centre — what better place for the launch than the site of the forthcoming biggest experiment on Earth? This is the Large Hadron Collider, which will whizz particles into each other at close to the speed of light for more than ten years. It's switching on next year, when it'll become out of bounds to rubbernecking journalists — so we nipped in with our camera to document the birth of some very Big Science indeed. Oh, and there were some quad-core chips as well.

In the picture above, the floor at the CERN visitor reception resembles a giant circuit board combined with a Saturday Night Fever disco special. The patterns of multi-coloured light flicker around the circuit seemingly randomly, but they're actually triggered by cosmic rays hitting the laboratories. Although the origin of cosmic rays remains a mystery, they are thought to come from very energetic, very distant events. So at CERN's reception, supernovae explode for your pleasure. Beats a fish tank.

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2 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

A word from our sponsor: Intel showed off its new Core 2 Duo Extreme chips in these fetching perspex and neon boxes running various games. It's not Intel's fault that most of the journalists considered smashing fundamental particles into each other at extreme speeds in order to rip the secrets of the universe from the glittering remains a far better game. A special prize, however, goes to the German journalist who asked 'Why can't CERN just run the experiment in simulation?' We'll leave the answer to that one as an exercise for the reader.

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3 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Each of the blobs on the map is a computing centre working on CERN experimental data sent out over two grids, EGEE (Enabling Grids for E-SciencE) and the Open Science Grid (OSG). At full tilt, these will bring together a hundred centres in a two-tier structure, capable of absorbing and analysing 10 gigabits per second continually. It would also be most excellent for sharing movies, although CERN is sternly insistent that no such nonsense will ever take place.

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4 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

The Large Hadron Collider Main Dipole. The main experiment at CERN is the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. This accelerates protons or lead ions in two contra-rotating beams through a 27-kilometre tunnel that lies between 50 and 150 metres beneath the ground. The main dipole steers the beams while they are accelerated — the protons will end up travelling at a speed of around 300 metres per microsecond.

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5 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Two chunks of technology here. To the bottom left is an array of optical fibres that couple light generated by impacts inside the detector above them. The big metal lump in the centre of the picture is a superconducting magnet; the white boxes either side of the red lines on the front are made up of slabs of aluminium surrounding titanium wires. These carry 20,000 amps apiece, and are cooled by liquid helium.

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6 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Your office has a bit of paper on the coffee machine saying 'Out of Order'. CERN has bits of paper like this.

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7 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Around half a million gas-filled straws surround the silicon and light detectors right at the heart of the ATLAS experiment. Each 4mm straw is made from plastic with a conductive coating and has a 0.03mm tungsten wire held precisely at the centre. When a particle goes through, it liberates more electrons, which are detected by the electronics connected to the wire. Each particle is mapped as it goes through multiple tubes, some of which are shown here.

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8 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

One slice of the gas-filled straw experiment, called the Transition Radiation Tracker.

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9 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Looking down the 100-metre tunnel that leads to the cavern where ATLAS is being assembled. The cavern itself is big enough for a five-story building, and this hole is where all the components are lowered.

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10 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

A giant concrete plug, that will be positioned behind the experiments to catch any particles that miss. When asked why they needed to put concrete in place of natural rock, our guide smiled and said: 'You just never know...'. One of the urban myths about the LHC is that it might accidentally create a tiny black hole or other monstrous event that could destroy the Earth — even the entire Universe. As CERN will be manipulating energies unimaginably smaller than those elsewhere in the cosmos, this is extremely unlikely — but they have fun with it.

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11 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

A poster in the lift that lowered us into the ATLAS cavern. I asked if it was something we needed to know about, and was told that if there was a major helium or argon leak, we'd have two minutes before getting asphyxiated. But not to worry.

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12 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

The ATLAS experiment itself. You can get an idea of the scale by the pair of engineers working just above of the centre of the picture. At 46m long, 25m wide and 25m high, ATLAS is the largest volume detector ever constructed for particle physics. The beams themselves are around the thickness of a human hair: this is the place where they get smashed together and the resultant clouds of subatomic particles are allowed to rampage through the banks of detectors surrounding the event.

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13 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Inside the data centre: this is how they used to do it. Banks and banks of Elonex PCs arranged as a computing grid: yes, the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos are teased apart by plastic boxes that wouldn't disgrace your local PC World.

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14 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Inside the data centre: how they'll do it next. The small copper object in the centre is an Intel quad-core processor board, one of the hundreds they're installing to replace of the banks of PCs.

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15 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

This is more like it: part of the computing infrastructure that will manage the 15 million gigabytes of data produced every year by the LHC. Eighty percent of that will be immediately shipped off-site to the grid.

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16 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

For historians of the internet, this is like a trip to Bethlehem. Now just a node among hundreds of thousands, this is the place where the first Web server first announced itself to the world.

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17 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

This is what the Internet actually looks like — fibre cables from far away snaking into high-speed switches. The one at the front comes from Karlsruhe, known as the internet capital of Germany, but cables from laboratories all around the world terminate here.

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18 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Backup? Certainly, sir. These two robotic tape units can sink a maximum of around ten petabytes between them, distributed through 20,000 500GB tape cartridges around the size of a paperback book. These are automatically loaded and unloaded into up to 64 tape drives, each capable of transferring data at 120MB a second. CERN is evaluating a number of such units at the moment. It'd be a shame to lose that Kodak moment.

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19 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

This is Tim Berners-Lee's NeXT Cube workstation, serial number AAK0017139, on which he wrote the first World Wide Web server and browser, and which hosted the world's very first web site. It still runs if you plug it in, says CERN, but 'we've lost the password'. Berners-Lee's boss at the time, Mike Sandall, called TB-L's first ideas about the web 'Vague, but exciting' — as true today as it's always been.

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20 of 20 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

The label on the front of Tim Berners-Lee's NeXT. Please don't turn off the World Wide Web.

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