Little over a week after the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) became operational it broke down. As the world’s largest particle accelerator isn’t working, computer simulations are the only option for a whole generation of researchers. With entire PhD’s being based on simulated data, you wonder whether physics is still an empirical science.
Today’s most ambitious scientific instruments are modern-day cathedrals in their size and complexity. Situated as much as 175 meters (570 ft) beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is designed to accelerate protons to near the speed of light and smash them together in four giant detectors spread around its 27-kilometre circumference. Built at a cost of $4.3 billion, making it not only the grandest but also the most expensive scientific instrument ever created by man.
The main argument for the creation of the LHC is to discover the Higgs bosons, an elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model in particle physics, but yet to be observed experimentally – a Nobel price is awaiting the one who makes the discovery.
SIMULATIONS REPLACE EMPIRICAL EXPERIMENTS
Physicists once hoped that the LHC would start its collisions in late 2006, but on 19 September 2008, shortly after the machine was finally switched on, an electrical short caused extensive damage along a sector of the machine. Repairs have taken longer than expected, and the LHC is not scheduled to restart before mid-November 2009.
The long delays have scattered the dreams of LHC Students who had hoped to use fresh data from the machine to use in their studies. According to the renowned Nature journal, LHC Students face data drought: “European graduate students face strict time constraints for completing their PhDs. Most universities require a thesis to be submitted within three to four years, and that means that students cannot wait for their data. Instead, their analyses are being done with data from ‘Monte Carlo’ simulations — computer programs that replicate what might come out of real collisions..”
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