Buried deep beneath the rural countryside along the French and Swiss border is a machine capable of producing energy at levels unequaled in human history.
The Large Hadron Collider fires beams of protons powerful enough to melt a small car nearly instantaneously, and crashes them into each at 99.999999 percent of the speed of light. When those protons collide, they release even higher levels of energy and create conditions similar to what existed just billionths of a second after the big bang.
The world’s most-powerful particle accelerator and its picturesque home below a string of quiet European villages is the subject of The Circle, which plays at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Tuesday (May 7) at VIFF’s Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour Street) at 5:15 p.m.
Robert McPherson, an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Victoria, doesn’t appear in The Circle, though he easily could have. McPherson spent a decade living in St-Genis-Pouilly, one of those tiny French towns under which the LHC is buried. For the duration of his stay, he worked on the LHC at CERN, the group that built and operates the machine.
“People living in the local countryside are rather aware of the LHC and even somewhat proud of the science being done by CERN,” McPherson said in a telephone interview. “There are a few inconveniences—for example, the transport of large pieces of apparatus on small countryside roads—but the locals seem to know it's completely safe.”
Today, McPherson continues his work with CERN at UBC’s Triumf Laboratory (an audience partner for The Circle’s DOXA screening) as part of a team of Canadian scientists analyzing data collected by the LHC’s ATLAS detector, Canada’s most significant contribution to the project.
He talked at length about the discovery of the Higgs Boson—the so-called “God Particle, which was officially announced on March 14, 2013—and where CERN, particle physics, and all of humankind, is heading with the LHC.
“We now know that we’re seeing the signals of how energy acquires mass to become matter—that’s the Higgs—and so now we can really start to study it in great detail,” he said. “We’re really now entering into the next generation of our understanding of matter… For me, it is fantastically exciting.”
To get there, he continued, CERN is planning on turning energy levels at the LHC up past anything employed so far, to twice what was used to create the particle collisions that allowed for observations of the Higgs.
Doubling energy levels that already hold world records might give some cause for alarm, given that a 2008 incident at the LHC forced the device offline for an entire year, but McPherson said the team is confident and ready to go ahead.
“The machine had an explosion—I don’t think there is a nicer word to use,” he explained. “It was like a short circuit that caused the explosion. But this has been identified, and we understand all of the fixes that have to go into the magnet systems to run it at the higher energies… We’ll turn back on again in 2015 at full energy.”
McPherson described the discoveries being made at the LHC as “part of the reason why I became a particle physicist to begin with.”
“I think we’re really in the dawn of a new chapter in our understanding of matter,” he said, “where the universe came from, and where it’s going.”