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Switzerland, May 20, 2008

An Underground Atlas in Geneva

Smashing protons to find Higgs

serious scale
Dwarfing man with atoms
walk left
Proton directional signage
wayan geek
Getting my geek on
Have you ever seen a supercollider up close and personal? Do you even know what one is? Today I deep inside the Swiss countryside, face-to-face with ATLAS, what soon will be the world's largest proton supercollider. Or black hole creator if the swarms of particle physicists get their math wrong.

And right about now, fighting back jetlag while listening to George, our gracious host, explain the difference between protons and muons, and how his giant muon spectrometer will measure the deflection of muons after they pass through the Barrel Toroid, I'm in awe of the human mind.

Somehow, in the grey mush between our collective ears, we're able not only to conceive the existence of "dark matter" and other universe-level mysteries, we're actually able to build things like this Large Hadron Collider to smash beams of speeding, highly energetic protons together to explore them.

Oh and while the science is at the subatomic level, ATLAS is definitely on the human scale. Maybe even the scale of giants, as I am humbled at its size, even here in this man-made cavern. Tons of steel, miles of cables, and an entire city's worth of electricity all come together in this delicate yet grand scientific instrument.

My co-visitor, Colin, seems to have a slightly better grasp on the physics, with a dad who knew his quarks from his Higgs bosons. Me, I'm lost when George and his physicist friend Frank start throwing decay rates of gluons and leptons and the CP violation of antimatter.

I am quick with the construction side of things, my dad knowing plumb from square, and teaching me to have a level eye. So it's with a bit of humor that I can see the supercollider's .7 degree tilt before anyone else. Yes, the whole 27 kilometer ring is not perfectly flat, but actually has a slight tilt. I could see that reflected in the ATLAS construction, even with my needing-glasses eyes.

But not to worry, the physicists are aware of this tilt and have taken it, and a few million other calculations in consideration during the design of their big atom smasher. A big boy toy that can cause geek envy even in this simple, jet-lagged mind.

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