Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A particularly long distance.

I posted the guts of this on my Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago, then remembered that I did, in fact, have a Blog that was a better place for such shenanigens.


In the mid-1950's a bunch of specky-boffin type scientists who were probably still bored after all the excitement of World War 2, got together in Switzerland and had a bit of a chat, about stuff. They discussed all the normal science type things like, how there wasn't much for them to do nowadays, what the current fashion was for pocket protectors etc. Until someone happened to mention that all the science-fiction films that were popular at the time involved atomic nuclear things and radiation and giant ants and so forth. 

They decided that what the world needed was a bit of factual evidence about how wonderful nuclear power was and how we should all embrace it and buy a pair of nuclear-powered pants or an atomic toaster or something and smile more. A few more months of researching how to make things 'cuddly' so that normal people like you and me... Well... You at least... can relate to them, showed that they really needed to understand how they work, so they could sound all authoraritive about them when they got invited onto popular chat shows. They called themselves 'CERN' (think 'The Avengers', but with lab coats)

So, to this end they built massive underground guns that they used to fire tiny bits of stuff at other bits of stuff to see if they could create miniscule nuclear explosions.

"Seems perfectly reasonable to me!" I hear you all shout. And you'd be right, and so would they if they'd stopped there. But they didn't... Like every frizzy haired mad scientist in every black & white monster movie that they were trying to disprove. They found themselves drunk with power and wanted to smash smaller things together, faster and faster.

So they built a circular gun (But, as they were trying not to scare people, they called it a 'Proton Synchrotron') that they used to accelerate the tiny specks of stuff to velocities approaching the speed of light before crashing them into each other (But after they'd closed their eyes, put their fingers in their ears and held their breath)

They had a huge amount of fun with this and it led to the creation of many, many things that you probably won't have heard of and one quite big thing that you will have - The World-Wide Web came directly out of research done by CERN. Well, actually it came out of laziness, all these hotshot scientists really couldn't be bothered walking from one lab to another, so they invented a way of sending each other pictures of cats without leaving the comfort of their own computers.

Over time, these round guns got bigger, from the 25 meter diameter of the original Proton Synchrotron, they expanded to 2,000 meters and called that one the 'Super' Proton Synchrotron, hoping that no-one would notice. Then, in 1998, some thirty years or so after a chap in a bar in Geneva had said 'Wouldn't it be cool if...' The guys at CERN jumped the shark completely and made a circular gun that was 8,000 meters in diameter. And because the general public knew about what they were doing they didn't bother calling it anything 'user-friendly' like The Magic Bunny-hole or Santa's Secret Toy Chute.

They just went ahead and had signs made up that said: 'LARGE HADRON COLLIDER' Which was what George Lucas wanted to call the Death-Star superlaser, but he thought it might be too scarey for the general public. Here's a map, courtesy of Wikipedia, that shows where CERN is, and where the SPS and LHC are.

The smaller ring is the SPS, the scarily huge one is the LHC

So, what's inside one of these guns? - We'll use the LHC as an example.  Effectively it's two 27Km long by 6cm diameter pipes, surrounded by immensely strong magnets.  that accelerate a beam of teeny-tiny particles to frankly unthinkable speeds before smashing them into another teeny-tiny particle that hasn't done anything wrong and has no idea about what's about to happen to it.

OK, I might be simplifying it just a little bit.  Maybe we need to do a little bit of experimenting for ourselves so that we can appreciate the scale.  Obviously, we can't use real particles for our version of the experiment, you'll never find a pair of tweezers small enough to handle them in your first-aid kit. So, let's scale things up a bit... Let's swap our particle for something about the size of a teaspoon.  
Let's say... Erm... An actual teaspoon?


For this experiment you will need:

Two teaspons
A fairly long piece of string
A Lockheed SR-71 spyplane or similar, modified to fly somewhat faster than usual
A blindfold

  1. Take one of your teaspoons and tie it to the middle of the piece of string.
  2. Tie one end of the string to something fairly solid.
  3. Tie the other end of the string to something else, that is both fairly solid and 1,000 parsecs (or 17,000 TRILLION miles) away.
  4. Using the glue, affix the other spoon to the nose of the SR-71.
  5. Fly far enough away from the string so that you can't see the spoon.
  6. Turn around to face the string and put on your blindfold.
  7. Accelerate to 185,999.9999999 Miles Per Second.
  8. Try to bang the two spoons together.

If you hear a very quiet *ting* noise and then experience a catastrophic explosion, then well done, you have just achieved 'Particle Physics'

If however, you do not hear a quiet *ting*, keep trying until you do - You are allowed 600 million tries every second (That's how many goes the boys & girls at CERN give themselves... Can't see what all the fuss is about myself, seems like you couldn't miss with that many chances)

It's been argued that to completely re-create the experiment, the teaspoons should be rotating pretty rapidly, but I'm not so sure... Perhaps I should ask the guys at CERN?

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