“It has really been a dream come true for all of us.” Aranya Choudhury probably never imagined he would stand inside the most advanced high-energy physics research facility ever created. The Large Hadron Collider became operational on 10th September 2008, and Choudhury, 20 years old, was one of 11 Indian undergraduate students selected to spend 8 to 13 weeks there as an intern, rubbing shoulders with some of the brightest minds of our time.
For the uninitiated, LHC is essentially a 27-kilometre-long tunnel concealed beneath Switzerland. It’s the flagship project of CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) and is designed to smash the tiniest known particles into each other with the intention of, among other things, recreating the conditions present at what we call The Big Bang. As a layman, perusing documents and articles explaining why it came into being, who brought it to fruition and what potential discoveries it may trigger visions of a sentient technology that could finally bring about the human apocalypse à la the Terminator or Matrix films. “The Large Hadron Collider begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, December 7th. In a panic, we try to pull the plug.” Something like that.
As usual, the realities of cutting edge technology are a far cry from Hollywood. For a start, it immediately broke and will lie dormant undergoing repairs until November this year, so we can put off stashing a survival kit under the bed until then at least. Seriously, though, LHC is a rigorously controlled effort at putting our best knowledge to work for us in order to push forward our understanding of the universe we inhabit. Physical theories that have until now been purely theoretical and untested can finally be observed, altered or disproven – in real time.
CERN being a European organisation, the bulk of the more than 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries involved are European. However, the group wants the best technology and knowledge to be given a chance to shine and provide expertise, so naturally India continues to play a key role. For example, over 7000 precise magnetic jacks were required to ensure the tunnel remained a perfect circle, and they were all made in India, as was much of the other magnetic equipment needed. That may be pure outsourcing, but then there are the Indian groups gaining experience through partnership with CERN with a view to setting up their own high-tech research facilities in India, such as SINP and VECC.
Ultimately, if the whole thing flops and we end up learning nothing new about our universe, at least kids like Choudhury will have had a chance to be present at the foremost physics facility of this generation, to meet the best minds of our time, and most importantly, to meet fellow aspiring scientists from all over the world. Fostering that curiosity in the youth is something that is all too rare in a world saturated with negative and manipulative images. It’s heartening to see such a high-profile group do their part not just for future textbooks, but also for future leaders of the field.
A more complete breakdown of Indian involvement can be found here – be warned, if you’re a neophyte like me it may lead to feelings of horrible, ‘what have I done with my life’ inadequacy.