Will the Global Economic Crisis Kill the Large Hadron Collider?

Illustration for article titled Will the Global Economic Crisis Kill the Large Hadron Collider?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest physics experiment, was all set to start up a few months ago - its miles of underground tunnels would provide answers to deep physics questions about the nature of everything from atoms to black holes. And then it broke. Big time. Six tons of ultra-cold liquid helium spilled into one of the tunnels after an electrical failure. Now Nature reports that repairs will cost $21 million, and the vast facility hasn't even gone online yet. Can a shrinking global economy support the LHC? With some of the world's richest companies slashing budgets and hunkering down for a slow-growth year in 2009, it's hard to avoid the question, "Is the LHC really worth it?" Though the facility will advance scientific understanding of the universe immeasurably, it will provide no short-term economic benefits. Discoveries made when the accelerator goes live could mature into devices that change our everyday lives in ten years, or in two generations, or never. So it's easy to see why the LHC is pulling back on estimates about when it will actually start the experiments. Originally reps for the facility estimated that repairs would be finished and the LHC would come online in April. Now they're claiming June at the earliest. I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't get to celebrate the LHC's first real experiment until 2010, but let's hope not. $21 million is a small price to pay to unlock the secrets of the universe. LHC Repairs Get Pricier [via Nature]

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DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

I think IO9 is borrowing a little trouble here.

1) They spent a lot of money to build this thing in the first place. Now that's finished, they have to expect maintenance.

2) This thing has a very specific goal: Find or fail to find the Higgs boson. The first experiments haven't even started yet.

3) No one has ever built a machine like this before, unexpected failures can happen and have to be dealt with. I pretty sure the planners knew this going in.

4) This is mostly an EU project (I mean I know it's true an international project with funding and staff from all around the world but—). I think there is a little quasi-nationalist pride involved with this because of that. The Europeans want to show Asia and North America what's what.

5) 21 million is tiny in comparison to what national governments, even pretty small ones, spend many other programs.

When you spend that much money significant social inertia is generated. We're in it now. If they decided to stop it today, it might take a few years for it to slowly grind to a halt.