International boffinry alliance CERN has announced plans to rush its damaged but still unprecedentedly puissant particle-punisher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), into service at half its planned maximum power. It's hoped that this will avoid the mighty machine being beaten by a rival US atomsmasher in the race to find the so-called "God particle".
The LHC is designed essentially as a sort of vast underground magnetic orbital motorway for protons or other hadrons. It differs from London's M25, however, in that the opposing streams of traffic move at almost the speed of light - and are deliberately made to drive through each other every so often.
Naturally this results in huge numbers of incredibly violent head-on collisions, which should hurl exotic sub-subatomic roadkill debris in all directions. Topflight particle-wranglers operating enormously complicated subterranean detector machinery should be able to sniff the shattered hadron bits and so, perhaps, spot the elusive Higgs boson - resolving the long-running boffinry deathmatch between Professor Higgs, proposer of the boson's existence, and his eminent rival, renowned wheelchair robovoice brainbox Stephen Hawking.
Unfortunately for CERN, a melted high-current electrical connection caused the LHC to grind to a halt - belching deadly ultracold superfluid helium as it did so - shortly after the inaugural fire-up. All 10,000 such connectors in the massive machine have subsequently had to be tested to make sure they didn't suffer from the same kind of fault. This has kept the LHC offline for months, when it had been expected by now to be churning out interesting hadron wreckage at a tremendous clip.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the American "Tevatron" particle-smasher has been going from strength to strength. The Tevatron, most brutal proton-puncher in the world until the LHC gets going, is substantially less powerful than its European rival: it can generate particle beams at a maximum strength approaching 1 Tera-electron-Volt (TeV), whereas the LHC is designed for maximum poke of 7 TeV.
Nonetheless, boffins at the Tevatron believe that they might manage to snare a Higgs boson first, especially if the LHC stays offline for much longer. This wouldn't totally invalidate the decades and billions spent to build the Euro machine, but it would nonetheless be a boffinry bitchslap of such proportions as to leave CERN's corporate cheek aflame more or less forever.
Engineers at the LHC are now happy that it will be safe to fire it up once more: but they say that certain copper busbars, included as a backup in the event of superconductor links going down, aren't of a quality to stand full throttle operation. Replacing them, however, would keep the mighty machine out of play well into next year.
Consequently, CERN now plans to leave them in place and fire up the LHC once more in November. Owing to the dodgy copper, however, techies have painted a red line on the Big Knob's* dial at 3.5 TeV - 50 per cent poke. It's thought that after running for a while at 3.5, provided nothing explodes, catches fire, destroys the Earth or similar, it may be OK to gingerly crank her up next year to 5 TeV.
This plan will allow the LHC to get into the race as soon as possible and hopefully see off the Tevatron in the god-particle contest - and at any rate pile up some data for CERN's mighty computer arrays to crunch into. At the end of next year, the plan is to shut the accelerator down again, sort out the copper backups and then hopefully be able to turn the knob all the way up to 7 TeV.
"The LHC is a much better understood machine than it was a year ago," says CERN chief Rolf Heuer. "We can look forward with confidence and excitement to a good run through the winter and into next year." ®
*Or whatever it's really called