All I Want For Christmas Is...To Be Sucked Into A Black Hole?
It's been the better part of a year since the Large Hadron Collider — the massive particle accelerator operated by the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) — was in the headlines, and even then it wasn't good news. The LHC has suffered from everything from poor craftsmanship to hackers to death threats from a paranoid populace — but it looks like the Device of Doom or Discovery will be back online and launching us into the future, or oblivion, by the time Santa makes his annual appearance.
The LHC — which runs Linux as at least a portion of its operating systems — courted controversy for most of last year, much of it focused on the predictions of a minority of — rogue? — scientists who claim the device could spawn black holes which would subsequently destroy the Earth. Though multiple safety reviews have been conducted, and luminaries including Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society and Stephen Hawking — surely the world's leading expert on black holes — have ruled such a scenario astronomically improbable, protests and legal challenges have been mounted in both Europe and the United States.
Though the collider was finally brought online in September, scientists were forced to cease experiments only days later after the device was damaged in a chain reaction caused by a poorly-welded joint. For the more technically minded:
A fault in a copper bus-bar caused a resistive zone, which then prevented the normal operation of a quench. This caused an electrical arc, which punctured the cavity containing liquid helium used to supercool both the experiment and the magnets which direct and focus the particle beams.
After much inspection and repair of many of the collider's 1700 joints, scientists report that the device will be ready to resume its experiments by the end of the year. A September relaunch is currently planned, though the collider is well known for delays, which could push the resumption into October or later.
As the collider will be at least a year behind in its experiments when it resumes blasting particles at each other, CERN plans to deviate from its normal operation schedule in order to make up for lost time. The collider will continue to operate from its restart date until enough data has been collected, regardless of how long the process takes. Normally, the collider would be shut down during the winter months as the expense of operating the device rises dramatically due to significant increases in energy costs. As one might expect, a massive particle accelerator doesn't just plug into the wall — the LHC's beams are estimated to be able to bore a 100-foot hole in solid copper. Despite the added expense, the collider's operation will be paid from the normal CERN budget — funds allocated for its operation have collected in the year it has been inactive, and will cover the cost of the winter operation.
A number of additional safety features have been added to provide better warnings of the kind of malfunctions that caused the collider to be deactivated, and numerous repairs have been made to areas of poor workmanship. One hopes that in the interim, additional security has been applied to the software-side of the LHC, to prevent a repeat of last year's successful hacking, which saw an anonymous group calling themselves the "Geek Security Team" gain just one level of access removed from that needed to disable portions of the LHC. As we said at the time, if the LHC does suck us all into oblivion, it shouldn't be script kiddies behind it.
Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.