Audio: Brian Cox Discusses the Large Hadron Collider at CERN

By Timothy M. O'Brien
June 26, 2008 | Comments: 10

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This interview audio and transcript is being published with another article "Large Hadron Collider as Massive Grid Computer". The following interview took place on June 19, 2008.

Tim O'Brien: Earlier today I had the chance to speak to Brian Cox. Brian Cox is an experimental physicist with the University of Manchester. He works at CERN at the Large Hadron Collider. In two months when they turn the Large Hadron Collider on it will be the world's largest particle accelerator by an order of magnitude. It promises to give us clues as to the nature of mass, gravity, and time but it also promises to be the world's most condensed concentration of computing resources to date. It's the world's largest scientific experiment.

I wanted to talk to Brian about the technical challenges, the computing that goes into a project like this. The computing aspects of the Large Hadron Collider are more than just a side-show. The instruments in this experiment are producing so much data that to stream the data in real-time to Fermilab in Chicago requires a 2.5 gigabit per second network line. Once that data is streamed it goes through a series of programs--FORTRAN and C++ that will identify and analyze the raw data for patterns. It's these programs that will allow the physicist to jump up and say "Eureka, we found the Higgs Boson".

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Brian describes this experiment as the world's first Apollo Program of this century. And in listening to him you'll get the sense of the magnitude of this experiment and you'll also get the sense that you're listening to he world's leading candidate to replace Carl Sagan. I started out by asking him to explain what he does.

Brian Cox: Yeah; I work at CERN in Geneva primarily and Manchester was one of the universities that contributed to building the Atlas Detector. So that's one of the two big general purpose detectors at the LHC, so its job actually beginning about a month from now--maybe two months if all goes well--is to take pictures--high-resolution pictures of the collisions at the LHC, up to 600 millions collisions every second by the way when it's at full power and trying to disentangle the debris when you smash protons together--at those energies and look for things like exotic objects like maybe Higgs Boson or extra dimensions in the universe--who knows what really.

TO: Is there any sense that we'll get more of an understanding as to what exactly makes gravity work?

BC: Well that's a good question and if you ask most people I think who work at the LHC and you said what could you dream of you know-what's not--not what's likely to happen, but what would you dream of happening, and it would be some hint of what to do with gravity because it's a strange force. It's millions and millions and millions and millions of times weaker than the other three forces of nature that hold matter together. And we don't have an explanation or any good idea as to why that is. So the speculative answers--or speculative theories, things like the String Theory where--and all of these theories seem to need extra dimensions in the universe which in itself is a--you know a bizarre concept. You're saying that there are not three spatial dimensions--up, down, left, right, and forwards and backwards, but there are other ones that you can't see. And--and you need those at least to get any handle on gravity at the LHC. So it's kind of a long-shot and we don't really know what to do. It's--our best theory is Einstein's theory of General Relativity in terms of the theory that works and that was 1915, so it's almost a century since we made you know testable experimental progress.

TO: I would imagine that there are already people lined up who have an idea of what's going to happen when you turn this beam on later on this year.

BC: Yeah.

TO: Is there any real disagreement? Are there camps that have developed?

BC: Oh absolutely; there's a huge disagreement because this is--it's truly a leap into the unknown. I mean you hear that a lot about scientific experiments but this one really is a big jump. The most powerful accelerator at the moment is in Chicago actually; the Tevatron at Fermilab where I've worked. I worked there before I moved onto the LHC. And the LHC is an order of magnitude pretty much--increase in energy and it's a huge increase in the number of proton/proton collisions we can have every second, so it--in a sense I was going to say all bets are off. It's not quite true; I mean we know some things that we're going to discover so we will discover the origin of mass in the universe, the mechanism that generates the mass for the fundamental particles.

TO: And that would be the Higgs Boson?

BC: Well yeah it would be. I mean the correct thing to say is whatever does that job we should see. I mean I would say actually we will see; as long as the machine functions properly we'll see it. It could be the Higgs; yes--in a sense the most likely and that it's a theory that works and--but it could be something else and you will find people who don't--certainly don't believe in the so-called standard model Higgs. There--there are many different Higgs theories; there's the--or Higgs manifestations of the Higgs mechanism. One of the--the standard model of the Higgs at the [simplest] you find one Higgs particle covers standard model Higgs, but there are so-called super symmetric theories that many people think are actually possibly more likely. And in some of those theories, the [simplest] you get five Higgs particles. You know so--so even the Higgs--you can have different camps as to how many Higgs particles you'll find. It's fascinating times to be a particle physicist.

TO: So the existence of the Higgs was suggested in the early '90s in Chicago; is that true?

BC: No; it was the--we've got no direct experimental evidence for the Higgs particle. We've got--we've got indirect evidence in that the standard model of which it starts, which our best theory of particle physics at the moment--works and as far as--and you can--we tested it to immense precision in Chicago at Tevatron and experiments at CERN and at SLAC for that matter in San Francisco and elsewhere. And it always--it works beautifully well and the Higgs is a part of that. So you can claim it as indirect evidence but you can evade that indirect evidence actually very easily in the theories. So the correct thing to say is it might not exist; it might be something else that we haven't thought of yet.

TO: It's called the Large Hadron Collider but I've heard you say protons.

BC: Yeah.

TO: Was the reasoning behind calling it the Large Hadron Collider is it going to be colliding other things besides protons?

BC: Well you can actually yes; it can collide nuclei so there is a program at the LHC to collide gold nuclei which is what RHIC does--the Relative Heavy Ion Collider--at Brookhaven in New York. And so it can--it can collide different things. The proton program is kind of the you know--the lead program in a sense because that's how you get the most amount of energy to the smallest amount of space, so you can try to look at things like Higgs particles. But there's a whole program--clan within a detector called Alice which is dedicated to heavy iron collisions, the nucleus collisions and they look at these things called quark gluon plasmas, which that's the way the universe was believed to be let's say a millionth of a second after it began--it's a big soup of quarks and gluons. So it can bang together other things, but--yeah; maybe it's just--I don't know why you'd call it--you could have called it the Large Collider I suppose. I don't know why it's called the LHC; I'd have to ask--Lyn Evans is one of the LHC Project Leaders. It's a good question; I'm going to ask him that.

TO: So it's not a large particle per se; it's just a "large Collider"? It could be called the "Hadron Collider"?

BC: Yeah, yeah; no large just means big 27-kilometer in circumference ring, so [Laughs] yeah. I mean--although it's got to be said actually that protons are pretty big things compared to the things we're looking for, the elementary particles of matter.

TO: So speaking of protons, I saw that there was a test maybe a few months ago where they tested the line that would inject these protons into the actual ring.

BC: Yeah.

TO: How did they create these protons? I understand it's a 27 centimeter train of protons.

BC: Yeah; and actually they come literally from a bottle of hydrogen, so you know the little gas cylinders that you see around like a fire extinguisher? There's literally a bottle of hydrogen sat there--hydrogen gas and all you do is you heat it up a bit to break open the molecular hydrogen, strip the electrons away and there you go; there's some protons--yeah.

TO: And I took a look at the CERN page and I see there are a number of graphs that say cool-down status. Could you explain that to me--why is there a cool-down phase and what does that mean?

BC: Well the machine itself is what is called a super-conducting machine, so that basically you have a big circle and you've got to bend the protons around it, so you need powerful magnets. So it's the magnets that bend the protons around and keep them on track in the circle. You--those magnets powered by currents of 13,000 amps; all right so you imagine the wired you'd need if it were to normal wire to carry 13,000 amps. It would be big. So what we do is we cool it down to 1.9 degrees of absolute zero, so that's minus 271--just less--minus 271 degrees and at that temperature we now have to build super-conducting wire. And that's wired as no electrical resistance so you can have a very small diameter wire made up into a coil to make a magnet that carries 13,000 amps and will therefore give you this immense magnetic field that you need to keep the protons on track, because remember; they go around this [thing]--the 27 kilometers at 99.99999 percent the speed of light, which means they go around 11,000 times a second so you can imagine that you need a very powerful magnetic field to keep them on track. So that's the cool-down phase. We've taken down pretty much all or a large faction of the 27-kilometers to 1.9 degrees above absolute zero, which is quite a task. It takes about a month actually pretty much to cool down every octant--every eighth of the machine.

TO: So I assume that this is in preparation for turning on the beam?

BC: Yes; yeah you've got to--obviously you've got to have the whole machine cold--no helium leaks. We do it with liquid helium, so no leaks, everything is stable and then pretty much the LHC is designed to stay cold so you keep it cold and you only warm it up when you have to. So you will warm it up when you need to do maintenance or there's a problem you need to replace--the magnet maybe but if nothing goes wrong it will stay cold because it's--you can probably imagine; it's a bit of a hassle to take something down from room temperature to that temperature. It's incredibly difficult.

TO: Is it the kind of thing where it gets harder the closer you get, like trying to create a perfect vacuum?

BC: Yeah; pretty much--I mean it's pretty easy to get it down to you know liquid nitrogen temperatures. You just pour liquid nitrogen in but taking it down to these incredibly low temperatures has never been done before on this scale. So I mean lower temperatures--much lower temperatures can be achieved in very small laboratories but you're doing it on an industrial scale. This is the first time it's been done.

TO: You need to bring down some sort of ceramic wire that's pushing all the current to these magnets that are keeping the protons--

BC: In the circle?

TO: In the circle and the protons travel in some sort of perfect vacuum? I mean how do they--

BC: Yes; there are actually two pipes for most of the LHC, so two beam pipes and they're about you know what--10-centimeters maybe across you know--they're not very big pipes, so one going one way and one going the other way and those pipes are in a--in what we call a cryostat so which is where the magnets are as well and that's I'm told one yard across--. Now that's not me being quaint in English. It's the only imperial measurement in the LHC and it's there because that's the diameter of a standard oil pipe. This is what I'm told, so it's cheaper to make things one-yard across. So basically you've got a big pipe--one yard across with all the magnets and the beam pipes embedded in it and that's the thing that's down at the--at minus 271-degrees. And then as you say the beams are in beam pipes and those bean pipes emerge into one pipe at the interaction point so at the places where you cross the beams through each of the--so you get the collision and that happens inside the four detectors of the LHC.

TO: There are four main test points on the circle?

BC: Yeah; basically--that's right.

TO: And these are--what have these machines like--if you look at something called the Atlas or the CMS, these are at each of the points and that's what you work on?

BC: Yes; so Atlas is a--you think of a digital camera. It really is except that it's 40-meters long and 20-meters high; it's a big cylinder. It's in a cavern 100-meters below the ground. It's bigger than the nave of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. So it's an immense structure but its job is to sit around the point where you pass the beams through each of them so you collide the protons together and it's in those collisions that you--one way of thinking about it is recreating the conditions that were present less than a billionth of a second after the universe began--for a fraction of a second and it's in those conditions that you hope to reveal the earth--I suppose the underlying simplicity of the universe.

TO: Two protons, two positively charged particles each made up of three quarks a piece--what do you get when you bang those together?

BC: Well what you do is you get a big mess is the answer. [Laughs] And what happens I mean protons are actually full of stuff. The three quarks is a simple view; there's other things called gluons in there. There are more quarks that are not in there in a sense so it's a big bag of particles and what you actually do is you collide two of the constituents together so let's say two gluons bump into each other. The rest of the protons fly out in the direction in which they came as a big cloud of debris really. So typically you'll bang two gluons together and it's that--that you're interested in. Those two gluons could produce a Higgs particle let's say and then the Higgs particle will decay into other particles and you'll collect that debris as well. So you're interested--the protons are really energy deliverers. All you're doing is trying to get energy into this small space and out of that energy you would hope to make new particles that you've never seen before.

TO: So you're really trying to deconstruct the gluons or you're trying to see what happens when two gluons interact?

BC: No; you're just--you just are using the gluons or the quarks for that matter to deliver energy. So you bang them together; you're not interested in the gluons. You're not interested in the quarks. You're not interested in the structure of the proton. What you're interested in is using it--it's like a projectile really to deliver energy and it's out of that energy that you create new particles and--and see the interest in physics emerge. So the protons are not important; you don't need to--you don't really need to do it with protons. It's just a convenient way of doing it. In many ways it's easier--it's easier and cleaner to do it with electrons and anti-electrons or positrons, and indeed that's what was done in the last machine to occupy this 27-kilometer tunnel. And it turns out that you can't get as much energy in there for technical reasons. For your more technical listeners to do with the synchrotron radiation that if the electrons radiate a lot more energy away when they're going around in circles than protons do because they're lighter, so the protons--for a given size of machine and a given magnetic field you can get the protons going faster and carrying more energy than you can with electrons.

TO: Now you worked at something called the Hadron-Electron Ring-Accelerator and I probably said that wrong.

BC: Oh HERA yeah--HERA in Germany yeah.

TO: Where you would smash an electron into a positron which is--?

BC: Into a proton.

TO: Into a proton? Oh okay.

BC: Yeah; you could collide either electrons or positrons into protons.

TO: What does the CMS stand for?

BC: Compact-Muon Solenoid.

TO: Okay; so that is going to help measure what happens during a collision and you said it's going to create how many of these per second?

BC: Oh LHC can create 600 million proton collisions per second when it's running at full design power.

TO: I saw that the power of the overall system is measured in terms of its luminosity.

BC: Yeah; that--that's the correct term actually. When I say power I--luminosity is the measure of the brightness if you--well the number of collisions per second. See there--the thing about a task accelerator is that we're doing quantum mechanics right; the--at the base of it all this is quantum mechanics, so you collide two protons together in exactly the same way over and over again and a different thing will happen each time--not because you're--they collide in a different way or they don't--they pass each other at a different spacing or anything like that; it's just because quantum mechanics is probabilistic and the probability of making something interesting let's say like a Higgs particle is very, very low indeed. It's billions and billions and billions and billions to one, right. So in other words you have to collide billions of the protons together to make one Higgs particle. The number you can collide per second is an important measure of how well you can explore that domain and that's--yeah as you say written in terms of this thing called luminosity.

TO: We're supposed to get half the maximum this year and the maximum next year; is that the plan?

BC: No, no; they actually--there--this will be a steady process and actually the experiments you know when you collide--when it's running at full power the beams, they--you--they--the beams pass through each of them in bunches so they're a small sort of bucketsful of protons that go through each of the--and they go through each of them 40 million times every second. But the thing is that within each crossing you can have more than one [proton/proton collision]; you can have up to 30 or more in fact when the LHC is running at its full designed luminosity. And that's difficult for an experiment because if you've got 30 protons collisions in your detector at once only one of them will be interesting. The other 29 will be spraying crap everywhere that you're not interested in and you've got to separate that out. So in many ways it's a good thing you didn't spray them--that when we first start it we'll get one [proton/proton collision] per crossing. So our detection will be very clean. And then it will go to two and then three and then four and it's a gradual process of understanding the machine. So it will take years literally to get up to 30--to get up to this huge number of collisions per second. And but that's fine; that's--it's nice. It's the way it should be.

TO: So let me ask some questions about how you capture the data. I saw from there's a Wiki online about the CMS and it talks about different tiers at which the data will be stored.

BC: Yeah.

TO: And the first tier--tier zero sounds like it's something that's onsite at CERN and it captures the raw data.

BC: Yeah.

TO: It says here that the raw data event size is initially expected to be 1.5 megs per event. What does that mean; what is an event?

BC: So an event is one--it's one bunch crossing, so let's say the LHC is really low luminosity so you get one [proton/proton collision] per crossing and one event is one [proton/proton collision]. And the thing is that let's say we're operating it at 40 million collisions per second, you can't read out 40 million events per second. In fact we can read out about 100 or 200 per second, so something has got to make a decision before you--by read out I mean put on a disk. So actually get the events onto disk which is the--the read out of the detector, the photograph if you like of that collision; so it's a complicated process actually. And we have levels--trigger levels which make decisions make very fast--hardware computers at the level one trigger, which has to make a decision extremely fast. If you think about it these--one way to think about it is the clock speed of the LHC's 40 megahertz; all right, so you have power in these collisions through 40 megahertz, 40 million seconds. And that's a challenge right because you've got to make decisions very quickly in nanoseconds.

TO: So what you're saying is something like the CMS or something like the Atlas is making a decision on the fly--what is interesting to capture and what's not?

BC: Yeah. Yeah; that's right. So--and it's not--well it is as hard as it sounds [Laughs] but it--the principle is quite easy because what usually happens if you bang two protons together then everything just goes flying out in the direction of the protons, so we would call it forward. Right; so you bang them together and you just get kind of a big mess. When something interesting happens what you see is you tend to see things going vertically upward so at right angles to the collision. That's a signal that something interesting--you've made something heavy let's say or something interesting happen. So you can--there's rules of thumb that we've developed over the years that say this is an interesting thing and other interesting things--production of particles call Muon(s) which are identical to electrons in every way except they're heavier and they tend to be associated with an interest in physics. So there is some simple signatures that you can rely on to get the interest in stuff. But you might say well what happens if something happens that you didn't think of and that's true, so that's the art of particle physics in a way and in fact we do take random events as well so we can look to see that we're not missing anything interesting.

TO: In terms of the data, the sheer volume of data seems like it's somewhat overwhelming. It gets shipped to a tier one center and a tier one center can be in the UK or the US or in China.

BC: Oh yes; yeah.

TO: And then there are programs which look at this data.

BC: Yeah.

TO: I'd assume to see if there is anything strange happening, if there is anything interesting?

BC: Well you could analyze it all and so you write computer programs to run over it, because there's an immense amount as you say. The [PR] number is 10,000 Encyclopedia Britannica(s) per second. Now actually I should know what that is in terabytes but--this is what being a particle physicist is actually; data analysis--it's obviously a suite of programs. It's in C++ now actually. So Atlas and CMS, the detectors have suites of analysis programs and so you can run let's say--or there will be objects in C++ that represent electrons so the taking of the raw data and the finding of an electron will have been dumped here or a Muon or a jet of particles spraying out in one direction--those kinds of things. And it's a question of what you do and that's the art of particle physics--the exploration. It's what you do with these things you know. I want--I want to look for things with two electrons, or I want to look for things with missing energy; I want to look for things with jets of particles you know and try and hunt for things like Higgs particles in that data.

TO: So the real discovery is going to happen because of some C++ program that can identify the right jet and then having that data--

BC: Yeah.

TO: --being aggregated and analyzed? I see from your home page at www.apolloschildren.com I see that you're working on something called the KT-plus-plus project? Is that--I assume that--

BC: Yeah.

TO: --has something to do--it looks like it has something to do with the analysis of jets. What is a jet?

BC: When you knock a quark or a gluon... or a Higgs Boson decays into B quarks which it can you don't see the quarks or the gluons. They're--you never see free quarks in nature; as they separate away let's say from a Higgs particle they go through a process called hydrogenization (sp?) which means that they make a big shower of other particles. It could be protons; it can be things called pions; you just get a big shower of tens to hundreds--many, many particles but in a kind of collimated thing we call the jet. So you get this big shower that goes out in the direction of the quark. So what you have to do is you have to write computer programs that can look over the entire detector and they can identify these jets. And the idea is that your hoping to see in which direction the original quark went and how much energy it had and how much momentum it had, so you've got to find some way of--I suppose it's topological in a way. It's looking at the--all this energy, all these particles that come out and try to--trying to work out from what seeds those things came and that's what the KT++ algorithm does.

TO: So is it just--

BC: C++ program that looks at all these things from the detector and tries to put them together into--to find out what originated this shower of particles.

TO: I see that CERN is doing a lot of work in C++. And I also see that you did some work in FORTRAN earlier in your career.

BC: Well yeah; I mean and even now the--the simulation programs that we use have been tried and tested for a long time and they were written in FORTRAN and actually most of the simulation programs we still use. The core is written in FORTRAN. It's a legacy issue. Now those programs have been rewritten in C++ but those projects take a hell of a long time especially when a bunch of physicists are coding them up. So when the LHC turns on, the simulation programs will be FORTRAN. It will still be FORTRAN wrapped with C++.

TO: So FORTRAN isn't going to be challenged in terms of its primacy in scientific programs?

BC: Well it is and the analysis software at Atlas is all C++. It's just that the so-called Monte Carlo programs that allow you to simulate events or simulate [proton/proton collisions] they haven't quite caught up with the C++ revolution yet. There's a lot of people working on them and but at the moment they're--the FORTRAN ones are the ones that--that survived to some extent. So yeah but my program is a program called POMWIG which is a derivative of a program called HERWIG which is one of the big Monte Carlo physics simulation programs; that's FORTRAN and that's going to be used at the LHC because their C++ isn't ready yet.

TO: So just explain to me briefly what is this 420M project that you're on?

BC: The FP420 is a--it's an upgrade project for Atlas and CMS, the two big detectors. And there's a process in which the protons--instead of smashing into each other and just exploding and producing let's say Higgs particles that way, the protons can just glance off each other. And they lose a bit of energy but they stay intact. And then all the energy that they lose can go into the production of a single thing let's say a Higgs. So you can have [proton/proton] coming in, [proton/proton] leaks going out--very beautiful clean collision. And those protons carry on down the beam pipes and but because it lost a bit of energy when they go through the magnetic field they don't bend quite as much as the beam protons, and so they separate gradually from the beam. And it turns out that at 420-meters, so almost half the kilometer weight from the collision point, they pop out of the beam far enough that you can detect them with the tiny little silicon detectors, potentially CCD--the CCD in a camera. So the FP420 project is aiming to try and build detectors that can add-on a little bit later, probably in 2010 to look for this particular production mechanism for exotic particles.

TO: Is this stuff more or less difficult than being in a rock-band? (Editor's Note: Brian was in two bands Dare and D:Ream. D:Ream had a few hits in the UK in the 90s, and was an election anthem for New Labour).

BC: [Laughs] It's technically more difficult but it's less difficult in the sense that it's a much more interesting thing to do for a 40 year-old. I will admit that when you're 18 being a rock star is an interesting thing to do but it gets a bit wearing after a while.

TO: Would you say this is the equivalent of being in a rock band for a physicist?

BC: I think it is; yeah I think CERN is the--it's the--in my opinion the first Apollo program of the 21st century in a way. I mean it's certainly the biggest scientific experiment ever attempted and it's journeying into the unknown in a way that we haven't done for many decades in fundamental physics--in particle physics. You know there are some very big questions about our model of the way the universe began and how it evolved; there are issues like you know the stuff--the dark matter in the universe and dark energy which is forcing the universe to expand quickly and that kind of interface between particle physics and cosmology has going through a renaissance at the moment and there are many--the observations that the precision observations of the microwave background for example--all those things are feeding in these new measurements that suggest that the universe is accelerating its expansion. And they--we really are wonderfully baffled at the moment I think it would be fair to say about the building blocks of the universe and the way the universe began and how it evolved and the LHC is the frontier at the moment in that research.

TO: When is--when can we expect any big news or is that the wrong way to think about this project? Is it just a sense of within the next year or two there will be a series of--?

BC: That's certainly true; that is certainly true. The results will come thick and fast and they will extend over potentially many years and the big discovery--it depends on what nature has in store, but the standard model Higgs--the simplest thing actually is one of the most difficult to see, and you could imagine two or three years the dates have been necessary to pluck the standard level Higgs out of the noise. But some of them are exotic scenarios; we see the symmetric theories or extra-dimensions in the universe--those things can actually be a lot easier to see than the more mundane--would be the wrong word--but the more expected things. So then there could be--I wouldn't--there won't be any results this year I don't think you know. You should be looking for a year and then onwards from that with a steady stream of interesting stuff.

TO: Okay; I saw you spoke to Leonard Suskin for the BBC.

BC: Yeah.

TO: And you were speaking to him about String Theory and he talked about String Theory being on such a smaller scale than particle physics. Could you explain to us what the difference is in terms of the dimensions? I know you said a little bit about this at the TED Conference but--

BC: Yeah.

TO: --in terms of a Collider that would give us any answers at that level, what--how much larger would it have to be than the LHC?

BC: [Laughs] Well if you take--it's a good question actually and a complicated question. If you just take String Theory at face value the simplest interpretation, then you would need a Collider bigger than the Milky Way to give you enough energy to see a string. The strings are unimaginably small; they are billions and billions and billions and billions of times smaller than an electron and an electron is--is so small that we don't see any discernible size in our experiments to date. But if there are extra dimensions in the universe and they're set up just right then the quantum theory of gravity which is what String Theory is could just could reveal itself at the LHC. And then you would have a direct window onto String Theory or whatever that theory should be but it's a long-shot there. So it's a complicated question and--yeah.

BC: But to be sure--to be sure, knowing what we know about the strength of gravity you would need an accelerator, a galaxy sizes accelerator. There is nowhere in the universe that can create those energies that you could see things that small.

TO: And you don't think that we could garner the political support from the member nations to fund that?

BC: Uh no. [Laughs]

TO: Speaking of the political support, are you at all concerned about going forward and being able to maintain the spending levels? I mean has there been any talk in the UK?

BC: Yes. Yes; always--always concerned. The thing that government fails to understand that is that blue sky scientific research, so research for the sake of gathering knowledge is vitally important and it's the only way that we get breakthroughs--big breakthroughs for humanity. And you can look back throughout history and you will find that the discovery of the electron back in 1897 which led to the Electronic Age you know the Modern Age--electricity--that was just done by--well guys who were first of all interested in seeing how wires and coils and magnets behaved--people like Faraday back in the 1860s and then Thompson in 1897 discovered the electron. It's curiosity driven that you could say transistors would have been invented by people who wanted to miniaturize computers and not use vacuum valves anymore but they weren't. They were invented by people that wanted to understand the quantum properties of matter and so on. So this research is big and expensive because we've done the simple stuff. That doesn't mean that we've discovered anything like the most useful stuff, so the next century's useful stuff is going to come from this century's investment and governments don't like that message. They--certainly in Britain and I think in the US as well they like to control research and direct it for what they would call economic gain. Well no one knows where the economic gain is. No one knows what research to do. No one is clever enough. You just have to keep probing the universe and that's a difficult message. It's always under threat. And if we stop doing that then I believe our civilization is--well I mean literally in danger of decaying away. So we've got to keep doing it.

TO: ...has anyone ever done an economic analysis of the benefits that CERN has already created for the world's economies?

BC: Well we invited the worldwide web as I'm sure you know so if someone did an economic analysis [Laughs] at what the worldwide web has done for commerce then I think you would find that it's funded itself thousands of times over--if not millions. But no one has done it.

TO: An important question that's on everybody's mind; if Gorilla199 on YouTube and revelation13net are right then the LHC is actually Satan's star gate and the day that it's turned on will be the day that the world ends as it is slowly or quickly devoured by a black hole. What do you have to say to these people?

BC: Yes; it's absolute utter nonsense. It's the biggest pile of [Laughs] shit that I've ever heard in my life. The thing is--right there are two things to say; one is that it's legitimate to ask the question. Every time you go to a new frontier and research be it biomedical research or high-energy physics, the question that should be legitimately asked--is this dangerous? Is there any risk at all? So that's the correct thing to do, and of course the question is asked. The thing about particle physic collision is that they're incredibly low-energy, right compared to--the energy--the protons hitting each other--together is the energy of a mosquito hitting you in the face, right; it just happens to be that protons are very small. So fine; so you can say that. So then what about black holes? Well it's just possible; there are extra dimensions in the universe and they set up just right that you could produce mini black holes at the LHC. That would be one of the signatures of extra dimensions. Now it's extremely unlikely I should say at that point because you know it requires the extra dimensions in the universe--but anyway; fine. You can make them. If that's true then black holes are made in cosmic ray collisions with the upper atmosphere everyday because cosmic rays have energy far in excess of those that the LHC can create. So that means that there are extra--there are black holes up there raining down on the earth all the time and they don't do us any damage. So next point--[Laughs]; so what's the reason for that? Well the probable reason that we haven't disappeared into a mini black-hole is because they don't get created. Well let's assume that they do; the next thing is that we have this prediction by Stephen Hawkings that they will decay away by a process called Hawkings Radiation which I might add is a much sounder theoretical basis than the extra dimension theories by which you could create these things. [Laughs] Anyway what if Hawkings Radiation doesn't happen? Well then you could say well the black hole that are created in the upper atmosphere don't destroy the climate, okay. Then you read on the web well what happens if these black holes fly straight through the planet before they have a chance to eat it? Where is the one that the LHC could be created and just sit there and perhaps sink to the center of the earth? It turns out that when you do the calculation the black holes are so small that even if they didn't decay and they just sat there they wouldn't come close enough to any matter--because matter is basically empty space--to dissolve and to eat the
matter and to grow so they wouldn't do any damage. Okay; why don't you ignore that? Well the final piece of wonderful evidence which confines these idiots to the bin is that you look up into the sky and you see white dwarfs--some neutron stars--very, very dense stars. Cosmic rays are hitting those with energy greater than those seen at the LHC so if you can make black holes, black holes will be created on that surface. It turns out that they're nuclear dense--these stars, so the black holes are not going to fly through there; they're going to sit there and they're going to eat away and they're going to eat away much quicker than they could eat away the earth because the matter is much denser. So people have calculated how many neutron stars or white dwarves you would see in the sky if this were happening. If they were getting eaten by little mini-black holes and it turns out that there'd be very few indeed--in fact probably pretty much none and you can do the calculation. So there's a whole layer [Laughs] that--I don't need to reassure you anymore I'm sure but there are layer after layer after layer of--of tests and some of them are observational and some of them are theoretical and it turns out that it's utter nonsense. [Inaudible-00:40:36]

TO: So you would say to Gorilla199 that the LHC is not a Masonic conspiracy to control the Van Allen Belt and bring war between us and the aliens?

BC: [Laughs] Someone once said to me the trouble with conspiracy theories is because they've got no concept, no contact with reality anyway; then anything you say to them will be disregarded because the whole basis of their existence is that they ignore common sense and they--there's no contact with reality. So you can't say anything to these guys except that come the day we turn the LHC on when nothing happens and the world doesn't end I would like an apology from all of them for the shit that they've spoken for all these years. It won't come though. [Laughs]

[End Brian Cox-June 19, 2008 Interview]

Related Resources

If you found this interview interesting, you'll also find Brian Cox's presentation at TED fascinating. Brian Cox's Home Page - on this page, you'll find links to other audio and video, a summary of the POMWIG and KT++ projects, and a link to a video of his previous life as a rock star. Searching for Brian Cox on YouTube brings up some interesting material. From this you can see that he tried to explain the nature of Gravity to the general public on the BBC. You'll also find some interesting conversations with Susskind about String Theory. If you are interesting in the computing behind the LHC read the article this interview was published with: Large Hadron Collider as Massive Grid Computer.

There are several Facebook groups surrounding Brian Cox: "Brian Cox for Dawkins' Job", the "Dr. Brian Cox Appreciation/Fan Club Society", and the humorously named "Dr. Brian Cox can collide with me anytime" (that last one has the most members of them all).

PHOTO CREDIT: The picture of Brian Cox in this article was downloaded from Flickr and was made available under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. This is a picture of Brian Cox from LIFT07 in Geneva which was uploaded to Flickr by user Tom Purves. Tom Purves is a blogger and entrepreneur in Toronto, who recently blogged about giving money to saveournet.ca. You can read Tom's blog here.


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10 Comments

I think the text is supposed to read "Super Symmetric Theories" (SUSY) not Sleeper Symmetric...

Also is not "iron" its ion...

@Jamie Allen, corrections made. (note for next time... proof the transcript) Thanks for catching these errors.

s/white walls/white dwarfs/g

Many ears make transcription bugs shallow. Thanks for the interview. Fascinating!

Jamie Allen and the Phantom Transcriber (maybe you are the same person, who knows.) Anyway send me your email addresses, you've each earned a free O'Reilly book on my dime.

A few more typos for you, all in the penultimate paragraph:

"nuclear physics" -> "high energy physics"
"many black holes" -> "mini black holes"
"having to deal with a little mini black-hole" -> "haven't disappeared into a mini black-hole"
"dissolve and to [inaudible] the matter" -> "dissolve and to eat the matter"
"white walls" -> "white dwarves"

Thanks Hugh, those typos have been fixed.

Great Questions. Brilliant answers. Wonderful interview. Thanks to both of you. Can’t wait to hear some results.

There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well.

It's great to have the opportunity to hear such an interview with some first clues on what makes gravity work. It's actually a question that we all think about. This interview shows that humans and scientists are progressing considerably in understanding how the world works. By the way, thanks for the transcript it was easier to understand with it :)

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