Lost in collisions at the CERN

July 5, 2012

By Denis Balibouse

A big part of being a news photographer is doing research. Not just the search for themes or events to cover but also finding enough information before an event so that we are able to cover it correctly. Taking a photo is often one of the last things I do in a long job.

If there’s one subject I have trouble understanding, despite almost 10 years covering it, it’s the search for the Higgs boson in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. When it comes to CERN, I often find myself “lost in collisions”.

I first took photographs at CERN in September 2004, a few years after digging commenced for the 27km-long (17 miles) tunnel of the LHC. I went to a site in France where CERN was celebrating its 50th anniversary by pointing beams to the night sky to give those of us on the ground an idea about the size of the ring. I could only get five out of the 24 beams in my photo, as it was so gigantic.

One of the things that I have trouble understanding is what the people at CERN actually do. What are hadrons, protons, ions, quarks and gluons? What does TeV and GeV mean and why can’t I find so many of the symbols that CERN uses on my keyboard? And why are they sending particles invisible to the human eye around a 27 km (16 miles) circle at almost the speed of light (they say 99.99999 %) in order to collide with other particles?

Nevertheless, they have convinced me that their research is necessary, as it helps us to understand where we come from, and what came after the Big Bang. I know that we already owe a great debt to the boffins at CERN: this blog post would not be possible without the World Wide Web, which Tim Berners-Lee started in 1989.

Popular writer Dan Brown wrote about CERN in his novel Angels and Demons, creating a storyline around the antimatter created in the LHC. Apparently for people such as Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho, the idea of antimatter was of great concern, as they believed the LHC would create a huge black hole or a doomsday scenario. Their case to prevent experimentation at the CERN was dismissed.

The sheer size of the detectors used by the four experiments (ATLAS, ALICE, CMS, and LHCb) on the LHC never fails to amaze me. For example, the ATLAS detector measures some 44 m (144 feet) in length with a diameter of 25 m (82 feet), and weighs about 7,000 tonnes. All of this had to be gradually lowered 100 m (328 feet) into the ground, centimeter by centimeter.

On July 3 I was allowed to photograph the scientific seminar during which the CMS and ATLAS spokespersons reported their intermediate results and answered the much-anticipated question: did they see the Higgs? Despite the heavy use of confusing scientific jargon, I remained focused on my own mission: to take a photo showing some kind of emotional reaction to the report. Obviously, this is not a football championship, so there wasn’t going to be a Mario Balotelli-style celebration to capture.

Each presentation was about 40 minutes long and I had to strike a balance between supplying pictures and making sure I was ready for the right moment, when the results were made known.

So there I was, sharing a great moment in the history of science: the right place at the right time. This is definitely one of the highlights of working for an agency such as Reuters.

For those of you looking to understand more about the Higgs boson, I found this link quite helpful.

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