The Large Hadron Collider is arguably the world’s most buzzworthy scientific instrument these days. (Sorry, Hubble Space Telescope; it was a good run.) Don’t believe me? Consider, then, that the Large Hadron Collider was a central plot device in both the prose and screen versions of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and Robert J. Sawyer’s FlashForward. The Large Hadron Collider has also enjoyed guest spots in The Big Bang Theory and the Scribblenauts video game. Still not convinced?

The Large Hadron Collider has its own rap anthem. Show me another particle accelerator — or any major scientific installation — that has moved its constituents to immortalize it in hip hop form.

Granted, when you’re searching for the hyperbolized “God Particle” — AKA the Higgs Boson — you can expect a certain amount of mainstream attention. An $8 billion scientific instrument built in a man-made cavern beneath two countries for the explicit purpose of slamming subatomic particles together at velocities near the speed of light also demands a fair amount of street cred, regardless of what it’s looking for. Above all, being accused of potentially destroying the planet, if not the universe, does garner the press’s attention. Getting sued over those same fears helps to earn the spotlight, too.

For all its hype, however, the Large Hadron Collider is still essentially a mortal instrument of mundane science. It’s subject to the same material and political constraints as any other organization, which might explain why the Large Hadron Collider is answerable to an outside, non-government, non-scientific agency that forces the installation to shut down for over three weeks every winter — and for a reason most don’t expect.


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The outside entity with an often unexpected level of authority over the Large Hadron Collider is none other than the power company Électricité de France (EDF), which is the primary energy source for the Large Hadron Collider.
Under the terms of its contract with CERN, the Large Hadron Collider’s parent laboratory, EDF requires the Large Hadron Collider to cease all accelerator operations for no less than 22 days every winter. The reason? The strain that the LHC puts on the local electrical grid would impede EDF’s ability to provide heat to its remaining customers during the coldest parts of the French winter.

Annually, the Large Hadron Collider consumes roughly 1,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity. That’s equivalent to the annual consumption of roughly 92,000 U.S. households. No wonder EDF would rather not divert power to the Large Hadron Collider during the most taxing weeks of the year. For its part, CERN simply uses the winter months to conduct annual offline maintenance on the Large Hadron Collider.

Should CERN violate the terms of its contract with EDF and not shut down, the power company can levy some rather extraordinary fines against the lab. In a worst-case scenario, EDF could cut off the Large Hadron Collider’s power supply, forcing the lab to switch to its backup energy supplier in Switzerland or, worse, its onsite diesel generators.

This is far from an ideal situation, as the Large Hadron Collider’s array of superconducting magnets draw 300 megawatts of electricity, and if they were to suddenly lose power to their cooling systems, they would quickly quench, ripping themselves apart in the process. An uncontrolled coolant failure is what caused the Large Hadron Collider to endure a monthlong shutdown mere days after coming online in September 2008. In other words, CERN wants to stay in EDF’s good graces, just in case its failover systems aren’t perfect.

That’s not just a static-charged sword of Damocles, it’s a contractually constricting case of Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

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This week’s quibble comes from the Sept. 2, 2011 edition of Geek Trivia, which asked which Manhattan Project scientist won the group’s infamous ‘doomsday’ betting pool?

TR member George_Butel didn’t so much quibble as demand extra backmatter:

I would like to see more details about who was worrying about worst-case scenarios of Trinity. I would also like to see citations for the ‘side bet.’ What were the other pool options–earth’s crust cracks, atmosphere catches on fire, or what, besides ‘only’ wiping out New Mexico?

I couldn’t track down additional side bet details — believe me, I really wanted to — but member RG Bargy had info on the main doomsday pool:

What we should all stand in awe of is that at Fermi’s insistence, the team decided that before the test shot, they should try to work out whether the “chain reaction” they hoped to initiate would ever stop – i.e. would the first bomb be the last, because it destroyed the entire planet. The team members set to the task (headed by Teller) did all this without computers. See “Edward Teller – The Real Dr. Strangelove” by Peter Goodchild (pub 2004) at page 104. The side bet is recorded (with Teller and Oppenheimer’s predictions as well as Rabi’s) lower down on the same page.

The side bet details are vague, but apparently Oppenheimer thought the first bomb would have a yield of less than a third of a kiloton. Talk about a pessimist. Thanks for the info, and keep those quibbles coming!