Gremlin Fireworks


On 10 September last year, protons – tiny particles ordinarily found deep inside atoms – completed their first lap around the inside of the Large Hadron Collider, the new particle accelerator near Geneva. Revved up to enormous speeds by supercooled magnets, the protons raced around the LHC’s huge ring, 27 kilometres in circumference. They criss-crossed the French-Swiss border more than ten thousand times a second before smashing into each other, releasing primordial fireworks. Huddled with my colleagues around a laptop, watching the LHC come online was a thrilling moment, but also, for many of us, a rueful one. Fifteen years earlier, construction on a similar machine, even grander than the LHC, had ground unceremoniously to a halt. It was known as the Superconducting Supercollider, or SSC. As an undergraduate, back in 1992, I worked as an intern for a few months with one of the huge teams designing instruments for the SSC. The accelerator was based outside Dallas, in the small town of Waxahachie. (The town’s other main attraction: Southwestern Assemblies of God University.) In a research article I wrote at the time, I predicted some features of the fleeting, exotic interactions among subatomic particles that the SSC was designed to observe. The first draft began confidently, in the matter-of-fact scientific prose that young students quickly learn to imitate: ‘The high energies and luminosities available when the Superconducting Supercollider comes online have intensified interest in probing various extensions of the Standard Model.’ The eyes of a generation of physicists were focused on the SSC, and on the riches it promised to reveal.

more from David Kaiser at the LRB here.