Giant particle collider fizzles

The biggest, most expensive physics machine in the world is riddled with thousands of bad electrical connections.

Many of the magnets meant to whiz high-energy subatomic particles around a 17-mile underground racetrack have mysteriously lost their ability to operate at high energies.

Some physicists are deserting the European project, at least temporarily, to work at a smaller, rival machine across the ocean. After 15 years and $9 billion, and a showy “switch-on” ceremony last September, the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator outside Geneva, has to yet collide any particles at all. This week, scientists and engineers at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), are to announce how and when their machine will start running this winter.

That will be a Champagne moment. But scientists say it could be years, if ever, before the collider runs at full strength, stretching out the time it should take to achieve the collider’s main goals, like producing a particle known as the Higgs boson thought to be responsible for imbuing other elementary particles with mass, or identifying the dark matter that astronomers say makes up 25 percent of the cosmos. The energy shortfall could also limit the collider’s ability to test more exotic ideas, like the existence of extra dimensions beyond the three of space and one of time that characterise life. “The fact is, it’s likely to take a while to get the results we really want,” said Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist who is an architect of the extra-dimension theory.

The collider was built to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts and smash them together in search of particles and forces that reigned earlier than the first trillionth of a second of time, but the machine could run as low as four trillion electron volts for its first year. Upgrades would come a year or two later.

Physicists on both sides of the Atlantic say they are confident that the European machine will produce groundbreaking science — eventually — and quickly catch up to an American rival, even at the lower energy. All big accelerators have gone through painful beginnings.

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