To see little, build big

By Phil Plait | October 3, 2012 7:00 am

One of the greatest ironies of physics is that to see the smallest things in the Universe we need huge machines. The Compact Muon Solenoid detector (or just CMS for short) is one of two extremely complex – and very, very large – pieces of equipment used by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva to sift through the bits of shrapnel created when packets of protons smash into each at very nearly the speed of light.

Just how big is the CMS? BABloggee Thomas Radke sent me this picture of it.

Click it to see the original 6000 pixel picture hosted at CERN. Then pick your jaw up from the floor. This monstrosity is 15 meters high – nearly 50 feet! To give you a sense of the scale here, look to the bottom of the green scaffolding on the sides, and you’ll see handrails where people can stand.

Julian interviews Brian and me at LHCI visited the LHC a few years back, thanks to Brian Cox who brought me there for a tour and interview. This was shortly before the gigantic machine was switched on, so we went down 100 meters below the Earth’s surface to take a look. I stood off to one side of the CMS, and the scale of it was hard to grasp. It’s over 20 meters long, and weighs over 12,000 tons – 24 million pounds! A lot of that weight is from the huge slabs of iron you can see painted red.

I made a video during my LHC visit, and the CMS part is about five minutes into it.

Yeah. That’s the kind of stuff we do when we want to pry open the seams of the Universe and peek inside.

Image credit: CERN

Related Posts:

My excellent CERN adventure: the video
CERN podcast with Brian Cox and me
LHC update: it’s now all-powerful

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures, Science

Comments (24)

  1. Tim H

    Good thing they decided to go with the “compact” muon solenoid. I’d hate to see the full-size version.

  2. Messier Tidy Upper

    That’s the kind of stuff we do when we want to pry open the seams of the Universe and peek inside.

    Great line Phil. But, but, but ..well, aren’t we *already* inside our universe? ;-)

    Seriously, that’s a very impressive machine and image though – & that’s an understatement. 8)

    Even if it didn’t End Teh Werld! ;-)

  3. John H

    What impresses me most about the LHC is not what it does, which is pretty spectacular, but the political, scientific, technical and management effort required to build it. It is the best kind of outcome from our ability to organize on large scales for long term goals. If we can just do more of this instead of wasting our ingenuity on military efforts, there may be hope.

  4. Nigel Depledge

    @ Tim H (1) –
    LOL, you beat me to it!

  5. Joe Seatter

    “Click it to see the original 6000 pixel picture hosted at CERN”

    wow, 6000 whole pixels!!??!

  6. My daughter is studying Physics at A -Level and next year her class will get the chance to visit the LHC… I am unashamedly green with envy. Seriously, this knocks spots off the school trips I had when I was at school.

  7. vagueofgodalming

    So, is a compact muon a type of large hadron?

  8. VinceRN

    I wonder what their budget for making things look cool is.

  9. David

    @1 – Tim H,

    I know you said you’d hate it, but it looks something like this:

  10. Adam

    Is that green hand rail in the bottom right of the photo held together with PACKING TAPE!!?

  11. Keith Bowden

    Wow, looks kinda like some gadget designed by Jack Kirby! :)

  12. R

    So frickin cool!

  13. Chris A.

    @Adam (#11):

    “Is that green hand rail in the bottom right of the photo held together with PACKING TAPE!!?”

    If you look at the similar one at bottom left, it appears that it’s actually held together with clamps. My suspicion is that the tape is to cover exposed metal edges.

  14. Davide

    Some of the materials used in the CMS are worth of a science fiction movie,
    especially the lead tungstate crystals. A sample was passed around at a seminar I attended,
    it looks like glass but is very heavy, denser than a block of iron.

  15. bouch

    @Adam (#11)

    No, silly, its DUCT tape!

    And if you look about 1/2 way up on the right side, right where three green trusses meet, you’ll see a piece of lumber held neatly in place by a zip-strap.

    Although my favorite detail is all the little paper signs saying “Stop, not solid, do not step!”

  16. Cairnos

    I’ve always thought it would be fun to be a fly on the wall in the meetings when things like this are first proposed, particularly to politicians:

    Politician: So which country are you proposing we build this large collider in?
    LHC proponent: Ummm, you see when we say ‘Large’…..

  17. Gary Ansorge

    “pry open the seams of the Universe and peek inside.”

    Ack, I just use a big hammer and chisel…and occasionally a sonic screwdriver…

    3. John H

    Yeah, the process of building big is a discipline in itself. I wonder how we’ll get the first space elevator funded, placed and built? Talk about big engineering…

    Gary 7

  18. ND

    The LHC looks like it should be opening gateways to other dimensions or to distant points in the galaxy. It doesn’t. I’m really disappointed about this.

    Other than that, yeah it really looks like something out of a science fiction movie.

  19. Thomas Radke

    Oh hey! I sent him this last week. Really cool to see it up here!

  20. MaDeR

    Okay, it is borderline mad science. :P

  21. Matt B.

    In the last part of the video, why is that thing on the right rotating when they haven’t put the parts together yet?

    And, Phil, whom did you bring along, Sheldon or Penny?

  22. Nigel Depledge

    Vince RN (9) said:

    I wonder what their budget for making things look cool is.

    All of it.


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