Wednesday, August 05, 2009

LHC and the hazards of Big Science

This article in the NY Times about the LHC's current problems was interesting. To be fair, the LHC is an incredibly complex undertaking. Making high quality superconducting joints between magnets is a complex business, involving spot-welding annoying materials like niobium-titanium alloys. Testing is a real pain, since room temperature measurements can't always identify bad joints. Still, they clearly didn't design an optimal testing and commissioning regimen. I'm sure they'll get these problems licked, and great science will eventually come out of the machine - it's just a question of how long that'll take. I do wonder, though, if stories like this are, in part, a consequence of their own publicity machine, which has been hammering the general public relentlessly for years about how the LHC is going to unlock the secrets of the universe.

This situation is a prime hazard of Big Science. One thing I definitely like about condensed matter and AMO physics, for example, is that you are often (though not always) in control of your own destiny. Progress is generally not dependent on 1000 other people and 500 vendors and suppliers, nor do you have to hope that some launch schedule isn't screwed up by a hailstorm. The general public needs to know that really good science can be done on a much smaller scale. While the LHC outreach effort is meant to inspire young people into pursuing physics, situations like these delays and the accompanying reporting probably frighten away more people from the field than they attract. If a layperson ends up with the impression that all physics is hugely expensive, and even then doesn't work right, that's not a good thing.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

The lay person already thinks that all physics is hugely expensive. Ask a random person what they think physicists are employed doing, and who it is that employs them.

Most of the economically relevant condensed matter work is seen as the realm of engineers, even if many physicists are also employed doing that work.

This is part of the larger image problem that physics has.

Uncle Al said...

The SLAC beam line was assembled and hydrogen furnace brazed by local housewives. 200,000 joints were 100% reliable over 15 years of operation. If you want to find the bottleneck, the first place to look is at the top of the bottle - management.

http://www-conf.slac.stanford.edu/40years/histories/BL-SI3-0583.pdf

Daniel de França MTd2 said...

So, talking about research involving small and big science: is there, and how is it going, research to use high temperature superconductors in particle accelarators? Most of these delays are due to the time taken to cold or heat the machine

Doug Natelson said...

Daniel - The problem with high-Tc materials is that they are generally not great for making into magnet wire. They're brittle ceramics, and while they may have high critical temperatures they don't necessarily have large critical current densities. While it is possible to use these materials (see here), bear in mind that NbTi wire is still cheaper, more reliable, and available in the extremely large quantities needed for the LHC. The expense of liquid helium is non-negligible, though, and whoever really masters an industrial process for cheap LN2-cooled superconducting wire with high critical currents and fields will make a fortune.

Daniel de França MTd2 said...

Yes, that's generally. But what it is the exception? Do you know who research that, besides that company?

Doug Natelson said...

Google is your friend. In five minutes of searching I also turned up this company, which signed a big deal with Oak Ridge National Lab last year, and Bruker, which also makes this stuff. I'm no authority on this, so I don't know who's doing the absolute latest and greatest industrial research on it. I do know that multiple companies are.

Raj said...

I agree. and being a nanoscale scientist myself, the I feel closer to the issue. I think similar things can be said about extravagant mission(s) to mars, for instance.

Cool blog, by the way. :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Uncle Al, you actually sent an interesting link!
Way to go!

CarlBrannen said...

Uncle Al's link reminds me of the "old NASA", that is, in the days of the Apollo program and before. Despite their primitive technology they managed to put people farther into space while killing fewer of them.

venus said...

Most of these delays are due to the time taken to cold or heat the machine....
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Venus
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venus said...
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