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World December 10, 2007
 
The World's Biggest (and Smallest) Crash-Test Site
From the people that brought you anti-matter By Paul Tadich Browse author
 
Page 2 of 2
 

That day, several sections of a massive detector weighing 12,000 tons had already been lowered into a gaping hole that plunges more than 70 meters below ground, to the same level as the LHC tunnel. Its job will be to detect the strange new kinds of particles that will be created in the inferno of the proton-proton collisions.

One of the things Golutvin's team will be looking for is something called the Higgs particle. This pre-historic particle has been theoretically predicted to exist immediately following the Big Bang, but has never been observed. The physicists think that if they can produce the Higgs particle, they might be able to explain something that's been bothering them for awhile--the exact mechanism by which particles acquire mass.

The only real way to make a Higgs is to re-create the conditions of the universe right after the Big Bang--and that's exactly what's going to happen in the exact spot I was standing on.

The funny thing is, the path to making the Big Bang possible on earth starts in a dilapidated village in the south of Moscow Oblast.

Unless you had a pressing reason to visit, chances are Bogoroditsk would fail to appear on your Russian tourist itinerary. This town has the same dilapidated and desperate feel every other down-and-out village in this country.

But Bogoroditsk has a secret. Just outside the village proper lies the sprawling Bogoroditsk Chemical Plant No. 1. This is one of the only places in the world where good quality lead-tungstate crystal can be made.

Lead tungstate is as transparent as glass, but is made entirely out of metal. It also has the rather unusual property of emitting tiny flashes of light when struck by high-speed subatomic particles.

At the core of the experiment in Switzerland are thousands and thousands of lead tunsgtate crystals, made to order into rectangular ingots about the size of a Toblerone chocolate. For $1,300 a pop, the Bogoroditsk plant labors around the clock, shipping their crystals off to Switzerland in exchange for healthy doses of EU cash. Who says Russia can't compete on the European market?

When all those crystals are in place back in Switzerland and the CMS detector is switched on, those flashes of light they'll create when struck by subatomic particles are converted to digital signals producing more than one gigabyte of data per second. The 7,000 servers and workstations needed to process the data produce so much heat there's a nuke-plant-style cooling tower next door churning away day and night to prevent meltdown. All that because of Russian-made lead tunsgtate crystals.

* * * *

How did Russia come about possessing a technology desperately sought by the Europeans? Well, back in the late 1980s, around the time the LHC was undergoing its genesis, the Central Committee caught wind of the idea and, in true Soviet style, decided to beat the Europeans to the punch. It was going to be the Cold War on a subatomic level. Unfortunately, the project ran out of steam when the economy collapsed.

Its legacy remains in a massive warehouse in the town of Protvino, south of Moscow, filled to the rafters with thousands and thousands of semiconductor magnets. These were designed to confine the beam of socialist protons as it made its triumphant way around a subterranean cavern carved from Lenin's iron will that surprisingly, never materialized.

This warehouse – which I've seen – must contain about half a billion dollars worth of magnets that have been collecting dust since Chernenko popped his clogs. Now, they're out of date and practically useless. Finally, in the spirit of collaboration, Russia may soon have the opportunity to prove its intellectual mettle in the quest for the origins of the universe. It's all part of Putin's Plan.


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