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Bad Math Causes Explosion at CERN Collider 270

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the allright-which-of-you-got-the-A dept.
javipas writes "The Large Hadron Collider at the CERN has suffered a big explosion deep inside that has caused a leak of hellium gas and the quick evacuation of everyone working there. The reason: a mathematical mistake that affected the design of the giant superconductive magnets made by Fermilab. Now the company will have to repair and upgrade the 24 magnets that are installed on the 27 km. circunference of one of the most important research centers on Earth." This story might seem strangely familiar to you.
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Bad Math Causes Explosion at CERN Collider

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  • by mulvane (692631) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:12AM (#18661909)
    To carry the 1 can cost lives! I never believed it in elementary school when my teacher that math could affect my life, but damn, the stuff can kill you!!!! Treat math with respect!
  • by AaxelB (1034884) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:18AM (#18661961)

    The machine, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), aims to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, when the universe is thought to have exploded into existence about 14 billion years ago.

    "There was a hell of a bang, the tunnel housing the machine filled with helium and dust and we had to call in the fire brigade to evacuate the place"

    Eh, sounds partially successful.
  • by your_mother_sews_soc (528221) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:19AM (#18661979)
    Talk about missed opportunities. I just listened to an NPR story at around 8:20 eastern time (US) about particle physics and the super collider. They mentioned how a particle zooming around in it would have the force of a bus, and colliding two particles would be an enormous crash. They talked about how particle physics has stagnated for the past few decades, about how the collider was built, and oddly enough, about what a breach of the coil would do. But no mention of an "accident." Hmmm. I guess I need to mail my pledge check.
    • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:32AM (#18662091)

      They mentioned how a particle zooming around in it would have the force of a bus

      Not really. The most powerful cosmic ray particles ever observed, which have are millions of times more energy than anything we can create, each have approximately the force of a thrown baseball. Perhaps *all* of the particles in the ring together have the energy of a moving bus.

      • They mentioned how a particle zooming around in it would have the force of a bus

        Not really. The most powerful cosmic ray particles ever observed, which have are millions of times more energy than anything we can create, each have approximately the force of a thrown baseball.

        I'd be willing to bet that a thrown bus accelerates much more slowly than a thrown baseball.

        Seriously, though, F = M*A. Without a discussion of the acceleration of the bus, you can't even guess at the force. If the bus is traveling

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Waffle Iron (339739)
          If you look up "force" on dictionary.com, you'll find 36 different meanings. From the context of the sentence, it was clear that the GP post was using meaning #3 (energy, power), not the formal physics definition #12 (f=ma). I guess that I lazily copied the term assuming the GP post's context, not remembering how literalistic the audience here tends to be. Sorry for any inconvenience.
          • No worries -- but in a discussion of a particle collider, I'll always assume when people are talking about force, they mean the physics term...

            But at any rate, then for definition #3, we're talking about mass and velocity, and the distinction still appplies.

            /Sorry for being such a pedant, but it's Monday morning, compounded by a nasty sugar hangover from Easter candy.
      • by HoldenCaulfield (25660) on Monday April 09, 2007 @02:02PM (#18665745) Journal
        The relevant quotation from the story on NPR [npr.org]:

        "It's the energy of a bus moving at a normal velocity," De Rujula says. So imagine a bus rolling along -- which has something like 10,000 trillion, trillion particles -- but transfer all that energy into one single particle. There will actually be a beam of protons; a whole fleet of subatomic particles, each carrying the energy of a bus.
        In other words, the grandparent just mis-remembered the story, or didn't realize how important the distinction could be when talking physics . . .
    • I heard the lead-in for the story you mention this morning, over breakfast, but I did not hear the story myself (left to catch the train to work). But I remember wondering if they were going to mention the accident, and if not, then maybe NPR was running a fluff piece for CERN. You know, essentially recycling a positive press release that CERN may have put out in light of their recent embarrassment. The fact that you say they didn't makes me suspicious that this may be the case.

      After a minute of searc
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:20AM (#18661985)
    Fermilab outsourced magnet design to Sony
  • by TheHornedOne (50252) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:20AM (#18661991)
    Haven't these guys read their Dan Simmons?
  • by Mike Hicks (244) <hick0088@tc.umn.edu> on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:21AM (#18661999) Homepage Journal
    What do you expect when using hellium?
  • by PFI_Optix (936301) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:22AM (#18662009) Journal
    What's so bad about that? Are they just afraid no one will take them seriously if they sound like the chipmunks when they report their findings? I mean, it's not like it's spraying O2 in the direction of the pilot light of their oven.
    • suffocation (Score:5, Informative)

      by SuperBanana (662181) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:42AM (#18662185)

      What's so bad about that?

      What's bad is that it displaces all the oxygen in the area. This was a common cause of occupational deaths in MRI rooms- not flying metal objects attracted to the magnet (though a very small number of people have been killed by oxygen tanks and such.) An MRI repair tech was killed because of a slow helium leak that lowered the oxygen percentage enough that he passed out. That's why most if not all MRI facilities have gas monitors that monitor oxygen, nitrogen, and helium levels (liquid nitrogen is also used.)

      MRI machines have vents for this sort of thing. Also because if the magnet quenches, a LARGE amount of liquid helium will boil off; all the electrical energy used to generate the field, which is constantly running in the magnet, turns very quickly into thermal energy. If the vent wasn't there, the room would pressurize, preventing one from opening doors (even an outward opening door- enough force would make it impossible to overcome friction on the bolt.) Magnet quenches are done only in situations where someone's life is in immediate danger (say, they're trapped by a ferrous object and about to bleed out) because of the danger (and the fact that there's a 1:4 chance of destroying the multi-million-dollar magnet and boiling off thousands of gallons of very expensive liquid hydrogen.)

      It's been reported in vent failures when a magnet quenched that it rained oxygen; liquid helium is substantially colder than liquid oxygen. Shit happens: vent valves fail, birds nest in stuff, someone says "hey, what's that big empty pipe for" 6 rooms over and cuts it/blocks it off, etc. I think the MRI tech was killed because of a leaking o-ring.

      Are they just afraid no one will take them seriously if they sound like the chipmunks when they report their findings?

      Picture one guy yelling "Run, run! We'll all suffocate!" in a chipmunk voice, and everyone else laughing at how funny he sounds, and passing out. And dying.

      I mean, it's not like it's spraying O2 in the direction of the pilot light of their oven.

      Oxygen spraying in the direction of a pilot light in an oven will do nothing except make the pilot light burn at a higher temperature. It will not cause an explosion, because there's nothing else combustible in the oven, unless it's REALLY greasy.

      What is not a joking matter is smoking in high-oxygen environments or fires in spacecraft, because they do have lots of flammable stuff, like wire insulation (which is fire-resistant, not necessarily fire-proof.)

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        LOX saturating some organic materials can create an explosive. Asphalt is one such material, although you need some percussion to get it going. Just lighting it up won't make it go bang. I wonder if you had some LOX and a 55 gallon drum of leftover pizza grease, and hit it with a blasting cap, could you make it go bang?

        Homeland Security is looking at regulating pizza drivers now.
        • by AndersOSU (873247)
          Dammit. I knew I shouldn't have put that oxygen condenser on my delivery van.
        • by AJWM (19027)
          LOX saturating some organic materials can create an explosive.

          I haven't tried it, but a couple of folks I know well enough to believe they probably have, report that soaking a charcoal briquette (as for a barbecue) in LOX and then throwing it against something hard can be pretty impressive, in the "stick of dynamite" range. A LOX-soaked charcoal briquette doesn't sound like something I'd want to pick up, myself.

          I have seen someone light a cigarette that had been briefly dipped in LOX (it was in a clamp, h
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Hoi Polloi (522990)

        What is not a joking matter is smoking in high-oxygen environments or fires in spacecraft, because they do have lots of flammable stuff, like wire insulation (which is fire-resistant, not necessarily fire-proof.)

        That sounds very familiar. [wikipedia.org]

      • Re:suffocation (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Frohboy (78614) on Monday April 09, 2007 @11:06AM (#18663213)

        It's been reported in vent failures when a magnet quenched that it rained oxygen; liquid helium is substantially colder than liquid oxygen.

        On a somewhat lighter note (since no one was hurt), an MR tech colleague of mine recounted the story (which I may be mangling a bit) of an intentional quench of an MRI at the facility where she worked previously. (I believe the magnet was either being decommissioned, or at least being moved to a different building -- regardless, they needed to release the helium).

        Apparently, they put out an announcement that morning (and earlier in the week), notifying everyone at the facility that the quench would be occurring at some specified time, and not to be alarmed. One of the senior researchers had been away at a conference for a few days, and arrived just as the quench was occurring. As they opened the vents to the roof and released the liquid helium, the suddenly-expanding cold gas shot up in column for a bit, condensing moisture in the air around it, before expanding out, and forming a wider ball.

        Needless to say, this researcher was quite shocked to get back to work in time to see a mushroom cloud over the building. :)
      • by AJWM (19027)
        fires in spacecraft, because they do have lots of flammable stuff, like wire insulation (which is fire-resistant, not necessarily fire-proof.)

        The only spacecraft that used a pure O2 environment were the US Mercury through Apollo-Skylab series. It's worth noting that even the pre-fire Apollo spacecraft materials were fire-resistant in the designed-for pure O2 atmosphere -- because the designed-for atmosphere was 3 PSI, not the 16 PSI (pure O2!) that they were using in the pre-launch plugs out test where t
        • by SnowZero (92219)

          There have been minor in-orbit wiring fires aboard Shuttle, which uses standard air.

          Did they manage to redirect the result to standard out?

      • lots of flammable stuff, like wire insulation

        At high oxygen concentrations, People will burn. Sorry to be so morbid, but there it is.
    • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

      by radtea (464814)
      What's so bad about that?

      Others have detailed what's so bad about this, but it is worth pointing out that experimental science is in general a dangerous enterprise.

      Experimental physicists routinely handle dangerous materials (a colleague once worked on a project where he was using hydrofluoric acid, which has to be one of the nastiest substances known.) We also deal with pressure vessels (another colleague working on high pressure proportional counters considered explosions a routine part of his testing pr
  • OOPS! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:24AM (#18662019)
    This story has been brought to you by erasers. Don't make a mistake without one.
  • by gvc (167165) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:24AM (#18662029)
    Here's Fermilab's statment. Of course they are an interested party, but at least their statement contains information, unlike the snide popular press article.

    http://user.web.cern.ch/user/QuickLinks/Announceme nts/2007/LHCInnerTriplet.html [web.cern.ch]
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by photomic (666457)

      "On Tuesday, March 27, there was a serious failure in a high-pressure test at CERN of a Fermilab-built "inner-triplet" series of three quadrupole magnets in the tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider. The magnets focus the particle beams prior to collision at each of four interaction points around the accelerator. Safety precautions were followed during the test, and no one was injured."

      May I pass along my congratulations for your great interdimensional breakthrough. I am sure, in the miserable annals of the

    • While the full cause of the problem is not yet known, failure to account for the asymmetric loads in the engineering design of the magnet appears to be a likely cause. The test configuration corresponds to conditions that occur during a magnet quench, when a superconducting magnet suddenly "goes normal," releasing large amounts of energy. They may also occur during magnet cooldown and during certain other conditions such as refrigerator failure.

      I consider myself reasonably technical, but I find this "information" pretty fucking opaque. Did somebody forget to plug in the refrigerator? You can hardly blame the "popular press" for failing to penetrate this kind of clunkspeak.

    • Translation (Score:3, Insightful)

      by iamlucky13 (795185)

      The linked article, which has more useful information in each paragraph than the entire original article from the story submission, is a little technical. Lemme try and simplify the important parts:

      preliminary indications are that structures supporting the inner "cold mass" of one of the three magnets within its enclosing cryostat broke at a pressure of 20 atmospheres, in response to asymmetric forces applied during the test.

      The magnets are chilled with liquid helium to keep the temperature near absolute

  • Units? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Tx (96709) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:32AM (#18662079) Journal
    Fermilab - USA. CERN - Europe. You guys did use metric units this time, right? ;)
    • by MrShaggy (683273)
      Thats why they call it a "Royale with cheese".
    • Re:Units? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by TopherC (412335) on Monday April 09, 2007 @12:38PM (#18664655)
      Unfortunately, the US also has "egg on their face" from other goings-on in particle physics. Another fairly recent disaster was the cancellation of BTeV [fnal.gov]. This was most unfortunate because European collaborators were completely disenfranchised. By not having a system in place that can effectively fund a multi-year research project, we've lost valuable collaborators and lost international credibility. In addition to this, we've lost enormous amounts of funding for particle physics over the past decade, and as of now there are no major new experiments being built in the US, and everything that's running will pretty much shut down by 2008 (Fermilab, SLAC, Brookhaven, CESR/CLEO). All Fermilab has going for it after 2008 is that they can build magnets, and now with these issues maybe even that is suspect. As particle physics tends to thrive only on relatively large experiments that take well over a decade to go from proposal to construction and finally operation, it's hard to imagine that basic science in the US will even be relevant any more to the worldwide community for at least the next few decades, if ever again. What's just as frustrating as this was the complete lack of media coverage as the US accomplished its "exit strategy" in particle physics, beginning in about 1993 and ending just about now.
  • by Dr. Eggman (932300) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:33AM (#18662095)
    So the Higgs Boson is a theoretical particle which both the LHC and the Tevatron are trying to prove the existance of and determine its mass. It is important because it could be an elementary particle that could explain the origin of mass of other elementary particles and differentiate between the massless proton and the heavy W and Z Bosons, indicating where the differentiation between electromagnetism and weak force arises. Better understanding these fundamental forces could affect better understanding aspects of microstructures and the univ... Ah hell, I have no idea what this is all about! This one's over my head, I think I'll go back to Soviet Russia jokes now.
    • by hey! (33014) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:52AM (#18662285) Homepage Journal
      I'll make it simple: whatever the standard theory says, root for it to be wrong as wrong can be, and for the entire theoretical physics community to go on a rampage, ripping out and replacing things we've long held to so certain they were hardly worth questioning.

      It's bound to be more fun that way.

      Of course governments will be freaked that they spent so much money to prove something and failed to do it, but that entirely misses the point. What makes trying to prove our basic assumptions about the universe worthwhile is the small possibility that they're wrong in some fundamental and important way. I for one look forward to the day when some big shot physicists hold a press conference and announce, "You know what we've been telling all along about [perpetual motion/faster than light travel/anti-gravity/time travel]? Well, it turns out not to be entirely, precisely true." How cool would that be?

      It'll be a big ho-hum if they announce that they've found the Higgs Boson exactly the way they expected with exactly the observations they predicted.
      • by Lord Bitman (95493) on Monday April 09, 2007 @10:14AM (#18662541) Homepage
        The universe, being rather on the largish-side, probably already contains at least two of everything possible within it, formed naturally through one way or another (such as the evolution of a species which is obsessed with lunch, and so designs and constructs the Free Sandwich button).

        However, of the many infinite realities which do not exist, those in which Free Sandwich buttons were possible became filled with sandwiches soon after their initial springing-forth, nilling the potential for all other life, and so clearly the Anthropic principle takes over.

        Of course, this is a flawed argument anyway, since as far as we know, and free sandwich button could probably not produce sandwiches at a rate which would cause a sandwich queue to expand at faster than the speed of light, and would probably collapse into a delicious but deadly black hole before expanding to reality-threatening magnitudes. I think the argument's concept is clear and reasonable, however.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by hey! (33014)
          What if we allow for the existence of imaginary sandwiches? Or at least sandwiches of imaginary mass?
          • by Lehk228 (705449)
            not imaginary mass, negative mass.

            the button, when pressed creates one sandwich and one antisandwich

            you can only eat one kind of sandwich or you will get horrible heartburn.
            • by hey! (33014)
              Well, if that's the case you can dispense with the button. Wouldn't sandwich/anti-sandwich pairs simply arise spontaneously?

              What's more, it can be demonstrated in a universe with negative mass sandwiches, information can travel backwards in time by the following argument:

              (1) The sandwiches will have mustard or mayo.
              (2) The mustard/mayoness of a sandwich will initially be in an indeterminate state.
              (3) When you bite into the sandwich the wave function will collapse into mustard or mayo
              (4) By Murphy's Law, yo
              • by Lehk228 (705449)
                the purpose of the button is to attract such spontanious sandwich pairs to a useful time and location

                if you are hungry now you don't want to wait 50 billion years and travel 16 light millenia due north to get a sandwich, you want it now, and a couple feet in front of you, on the desk

                you also need the button to be sure they don't form too close and explode
        • wow, It's kind of sad, but I somehow feel like I know what you mean...
  • Gadzooks! (Score:4, Funny)

    by Control Group (105494) * on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:38AM (#18662145) Homepage
    We've lost containment of the hellium! Quick, we need a goateed doctor and a musclebound space marine from Phobos!
  • If it were Helium, then, since Helium is an inert gas, things would have been less dangerous. But Hellium, let me tell you, that is another baby. It's the gas straight from Hell, you know? Basically a satanic fart. Oh wait, I guess that could be a typo. Anyhow. I hope things get better at CERN...
  • by ewhenn (647989) on Monday April 09, 2007 @09:50AM (#18662261)
    ...a leak of hellium gas and....

    Jesus christ! ... oh wait.....
  • Good thing no one was hurt! Would hate to think that someone was once again killed by theoretical physics and bad calculus. Please tell me this wasn't another traditional to metric conversion problem.... What's with runnimg from the cloud of Helium, were they scared of sounding funny while describing on TV what the explosion sounded like? Would be funny to hear the chipmunks describing an accident at the nuclear/quantum research facility. I know I know, nothing quite like a cloud of radiactive, poten

  • There is the theory of the moebius, a twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop, where time becomes a loop, where time becomes a loop...
  • by lexarius (560925)
    I wonder if any of them ended up on Another World [wikipedia.org]?
  • On my first scan of the /. home page this morning, I read this headline as "Bad Meth Causes Explosion at CERN Collider". Needless to say, the actual story turned out to be a lot less interesting than I thought it would be :-D
  • A bunch of Mathheads cook up a bad batch in their laboratory and it explodes. I think we've seen this story on the news before.
  • by Sockatume (732728) on Monday April 09, 2007 @10:23AM (#18662641)
    When you're working with liquid nitrogen and liquid helium (as coolants for superconducting magnets) it's easy to assume they're harmless because they're chemically inert. However a small volume of liquid boils into a huge volume of gas, which will exclude the air - and precious oxygen - from the vicinity. A big helium leak is no laughing matter because of the asphyxiation risk.
  • by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Monday April 09, 2007 @10:24AM (#18662647) Journal
    So Fermilab, CERN's competition, designed the magnets that happened to have a basic design flaw? Hmmmm, cue The Beastie Boys tune "Sabotage"!
    • by The_Wilschon (782534) on Monday April 09, 2007 @10:50AM (#18663011) Homepage
      Fermilab and CERN are only competitors under a quite loose definition of the word. ATLAS and CMS are competitors, CDF and D0 are competitors, Fermilab and CERN are not really. Actually, most of the people working at CERN either also work at or have worked at Fermilab (or one of the other accelerator labs). Most of the people at Fermilab are anticipating working at CERN in the next few years. I myself have been working at Fermilab for the last few years, but I am starting work at CERN this summer.

      CERN is a continuation of what Fermilab has been working on, not a rival.

      The CAPTCHA is "footstep". Appropriate. CERN is following in Fermilab's footsteps (and then going quite a bit further).
      • I'm quite jealous that you work at Fermilab, simply due to the design of the large office space there =) I was there a couple of weeks ago for an FAA safety meeting for pilots, and it was the first time I got to visit Fermilab. I fell in love with the atrium area.
    • So Fermilab, CERN's competition, designed the magnets that happened to have a basic design flaw? Hmmmm, cue The Beastie Boys tune "Sabotage"!

      Once could equally easily invert this; CERN, Fermilab's competition and responsible for reviewing and approving the design, managed to miss a fundemental flaw in the design. Plenty of blame to go around here on both sides of the Atlantic.
    • Presumably this was supposed to be a joke, but just in case...

      If you read Fermilab's press release, you'll note that Fermi and CERN followed proper procedures, with Fermi running reviews including both CERN and third party labs. NOBODY seems to have caught this. So if someone does want to propagate conspiracy theories, they'll need a wider net than merely inter-lab rivalry.

      [Egging them on dept: I suggest watching _National Treasure_ a few times; there are lots of hidden clues in there. Good thing people
  • by Critical Facilities (850111) on Monday April 09, 2007 @10:24AM (#18662649) Homepage
    "I must've....put a decimal in the wrong place. DAMMIT! I always do that!"
  • by Temkin (112574) on Monday April 09, 2007 @10:33AM (#18662793)

    When physicists screw up, they certainly do it spectacularly. Though I don't think this quite rises to the level of the Castle Bravo "oops" [wikipedia.org] :-)
  • No, the problem was not bad math. The problem was that the engineering design specification did not take into account torsion forces acting upon the magnets. Bad engineering, if anything.
  • by robson (60067) on Monday April 09, 2007 @11:47AM (#18663885)
    Pros: Finally get to field-test that cool Tau Cannon.

    Cons: Headcrabs everywhere.
  • It's a good thing that spelling doesn't risk lives, though!!

    "the 27 km. circunference"
  • Who else here would have loved to have been the emergency operator when people started calling in?
  • Neat! Where do I sign up for Bad Math 101?
  • Coincidentally, Fermilab stands to gain most from delays at Cern. Its researchers also operate a rival but less powerful particle accelerator, the Tevatron.

    I think not...
  • I survived the first Big Bang at CERN and all I got was this lousy t-shirt...

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