Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/09/22/lhc_superfluid_outage_flee_while_u_can/

Superfluid leak downs LHC for months

Bored boffin mischief disasters now inevitable

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 22nd September 2008 12:28 GMT

Bad news broke at the weekend for fans of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - the titanic underground magno-doughnut proton punisher located outside Geneva. Technical mishaps will mean at least a two-month delay before the inaugural hadron headbang.

It appears that problems arose after a faulty electrical connection between two magnets melted on Friday, leading to knock-on mechanical issues. A tonne of pricey, outrageously chilly liquid helium reportedly escaped into the underground tunnel complex.

This could have been a bit hairy for anyone hanging about in the vicinity, as the LHC's magnets are normally maintained at around 1.9 degrees above absolute zero. This is below the "lambda point" at which liquefied helium becomes a so-called "superfluid" - fearsome stuff which crawls up walls, eels through the tiniest aperture etc, and of course freezes anything it touches.

Even if any bystanders had escaped being turned into frosty stalagmite statues, they might still have suffocated as the helium rapidly evaporated into gas and drove out any air in the vicinity.

Rattled particle-smasher chiefs, however, said they were sure that there had been no naughty boffins playing hookey in the affected tunnel segment, and consequently no danger of any superfluid engulfment and/or helium asphyxiation bother.

Nonetheless it seems that the entire affected section of magno-pipe will have to be warmed right up to ordinary temperatures that humans can survive, in order for superfluid plumbers, superconductor techies and other abstruse specialists to make repairs. At present, though much too hot to function as designed, the busted segment is still a trifle parky by human standards at around minus 170 degrees C.

Once repairs have been made, the sector will then have to be chilled down again to within a brass monkey's wedding tackle of absolute zero - a time-consuming process which the subterranean particle puncher brains at CERN had hoped was behind them. Hence the expected two-month delays before any actual proton-bothering can begin.

There will be those - subscribers to the theory that an operational LHC is sure to destroy the world or indeed entire universe in an excitingly colourful way, probably involving picoscopic collapsar dimension portals or self-replicating conceptual blancmange of some sort - who will be heaving a temporary sigh of relief at the outage.

Others, however, more familiar with the history of the underground Franco-Swiss boffinry collective which operates the LHC, will now become seriously alarmed for the first time. It's well known, for instance, that Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while he was supposed to be molesting atoms at CERN. The consequences of this were, luckily, relatively minor: The paid-for jazzmag and news industries were almost totally destroyed, and it became impossible to suggest that any significant event ever occurs without the consent of a sinister world-spanning conspiracy. But that was largely it.

But that was the result when just one middle-ranking CERN physics brainbox had an afternoon off to fool about with a primitive computer network of the last century. What will happen now, with all CERN's legions of top-bracket, premier league boffins - tooled up as everyone knows they are with outrageous hypercomputing arrays of unprecedented power, superfluid ultramagnets and god knows what else - condemned to idleness for months?

Apart from anything else, we imagine that the temptation to start playing pranks with all the radical ultra-machinery will soon become irresistible, leading to a probable plague of superhero physics nerds pondering whether to use their powers for good or to achieve world dominance.

If we're lucky, though, nothing more threatening will appear than a few more niche rap songs. All the same, we recommend a heightened state of alert until the magnets are fixed and the proton-bonking can begin for real. ®