Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Dan Brown trail

Here is my latest Lab Report column for Prospect. I have realised with a degree of unease that I have just done the Dan Brown tour of Europe – first CERN, then Chartres Cathedral. I was giving a talk at CERN, while at Chartres I was taking part in a Nova documentary. I’m still not sure entirely what the thrust of it will be – something to do with how science and religion interacted in the Gothic era, and they have been filming at Amiens (and I think Beauvais) as well as Chartres. We’ll see. But it took me to parts of the cathedral I’d not had access to before, including the roof (scary) and the gallery in front of the rose window in the north transept – amazing to see that glass close up. And I got a photo of the ‘transitional flying buttress’ between the nave and chevet, which is hidden away out of sight. I’ll put it on the web once I can get it off my mobile.

But it was striking that both CERN and Chartres are having to reach an accommodation with Dan Brown. At CERN they are quite explicit about embracing the connection – making the most of things, I guess. I’ve only seen a brief clip of Angels and Demons, which was enough to make it plain that the science is a bit of a joke. I imagine the Chartres business is even worse (I can see that I will be unable to postpone for much longer the day when I have to read those bloody books). The cathedral’s representative was eager to ensure that I made no mention of Dan Brown-style ‘mysteries’, numerology, Templars and so forth. The curious thing was that this very congenial chap was apparently at first horrified that Nova were hoping to film me at the cathedral, saying that they’d been getting all kinds of crazy pagan visitors wanting to dance in the labyrinth on the basis of Universe of Stone. I can only imagine that he’s got it mixed up with some other book, since a part of my book’s aim is to debunk all that tiresome nonsense. Anyway, he seemed to be reassured after having glanced through the book, and eventually trusted us enough to leave us to our own devices. not a word about sacred geometry passed my lips (and if it had, it would have been a rude one).


The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva, is due to resume its search for the elusive Higgs particle in September. The Higgs, thought to be responsible for giving other fundamental particles their mass, is the last piece in the jigsaw of the Standard Model, the theoretical framework used to understand all known particles and forces. Finding the Higgs particle is one of the LHC’s key assignments. It is thought to be too massive to be made in any existing particle accelerator – the bigger this (still unknown) mass, the more energetic particle collisons have to be to spawn a Higgs. The mightiest previous accelerator, the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois, lacks the necessary oomph.

The LHC’s much heralded opening last September ended in tears just nine days later. An electrical short circuit caused a leak of the liquid helium coolant, which in turn ripped from its moorings one of the immense magnets used to accelerate particles through the 27-km circular tunnels, blasting a hole in the ring and contaminating it with debris. The clean-up and installation of new safeguards have been going on ever since.

Engineering failure is hardly surprising in a project this complex, and of course the space programme has suffered far worse. But it was an illustration that, as physicist John Ellis put it when I visited CERN recently, no matter how much brain power lies behind the planning, it’s usually the ‘stupid things’ that go wrong. Yet the delay wasn’t entirely unwelcome – a physicist working on one of the LHC experiments admitted that they weren’t really ready for switch-on last September. He was talking about preparation for collecting data, not factors connected to the accident – but in any event, everyone seems confident that another such mishap is unlikely.

There’s optimism all round, especially since communications between the scientists and management improved when the new director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer took his post in January. But a year’s delay is a long time for graduate students waiting for data to study. To make up for lost time the LHC will run during the coming winter, when the higher cost of electricity, and holiday-season depletion of maintenance crews, usually compels a shut-down. That will hurt the budget – but with a cost of E6.6 million so far, who’s counting?

Meanwhile, the LHC’s venerable competitor the Tevatron faces an uncertain future. Despite its illustrious career – the bottom and top quarks were both discovered there – the Fermilab collider will soon switch off for good, having pretty much exhausted its potential. But it’s not yet agreed when that will happen; the accelerator has the go-ahead for 2010, and might run in 2011 too. Fermilab scientists dearly hope to glean more information about the Higgs first. They have already claimed to put a lower limit on the particle’s mass, although it’s debated how trustworthy the figure is (and not clear that more experiments can improve it much).

But the Higgs is not the whole story. Arguably a more exciting goal of the LHC is to seek new physics that the Standard Model cannot explain, especially a relationship called supersymmetry that might unite the known particle families. Supersymmetry implies that the particles in one superfamily, called bosons (including protons), have partners in the other superfamily, called fermions (such as electrons). The LHC hopes to find these supersymmetric particles, if they exist. An experiment at the Tevatron looking at the properties of particles called B mesons might just catch a glimpse of supersymmetry’s influence first. That will stretch Fermilab’s capability to the limit, but it would steal a big slice of the LHC’s thunder.


CERN scientists were caught unawares when, in May, Austria’s science minister Johannes Hahn announced an intention to withdraw from the international collaboration. Austria contributes 16m euros to CERN, 2.2 percent of the funding provided by the 20 member states. That’s just 0.5 percent of Austria’s science budget, but Hahn decided that it swallowed too big a share of the pot assigned for international research. Austria has been a CERN member state since 1959, and has some of the most able physicists in Europe.

Hahn offered no explanation for why the investment was a poor one. Worse, he seems to have taken the decision unilaterally, consulting neither the scientists involved nor the Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann. That was too much. Hahn’s conservative People’s Party forms a tense coalition government with the centre-left Social Democrats led by Faymann, and Hahn’s decision smacks of political manoeuvring rather than considered judgement. To general jubilation, Faymann quickly stepped in to overrule him. With other new European states, such as Romania, queuing up to join CERN, Hahn was in any case clearly out of step with the mood of the times.


Surprisingly prominent in the corridors of CERN are posters advertising ‘the science behind Angels and Demons’. The Dan Brown book, in which Robert Langdon foils a plot to obliterate the Vatican with a bomb made from antimatter manufactured at CERN, drew so many enquiries that the centre was compelled to set up a dedicated website, which immediately became the most visited page on its domain. Now the movie is stirring up interest afresh. Given the shaky physics on display there, it must seem something of a mixed blessing. But the PR team can be forgiven for seizing on both an educational opportunity and a diversion from the LHC’s travails.

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