Weaseling Its Way

Small mammal sabotages world’s “most powerful scientific instrument”

In the latest version of David vs. Goliath, a small mammal appears to have ousted a scientific giant.

collider

The laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider studies fundamental particles such as protons.

Engineers at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research whose laboratory is located near Geneva astride the Franco-Swiss border, had to be surprised when their largest instrument shut down overnight on April 29. Upon investigation, the workers found power cables that appeared to be eaten through — and the remains of the probable culprit. It was a small mammal, first reported as a weasel, but since then possibly considered to be a marten in an official follow-up document (look for ‘fouine’ — French for ‘marten’).

The instrument in question is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile superconducting machine used to study particles of matter by forcing them to collide at near-lightspeed. The organization, founded in 1954, brings together physicists and engineers to study the fundamental structure of the universe and basic constituents of matter. The process gives the physicists clues about how the particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature. The instruments used at CERN

Martens — a cousin of the weasel — will act cute to your face, and cunning behind your back.

Martens — a cousin of the weasel — will act cute to your face, and cunning behind your back.

are purpose-built particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before the beams are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

“We had electrical problems, and we are pretty sure this was caused by a small animal,” says Arnaud Marsollier, head of press for CERN, the organization that runs the $7 billion particle collider in Switzerland. Although they had not conducted a thorough analysis of the remains, Marsollier says they believe the creature was “a weasel, probably.”

Weasels and martens are very similar, in their appearance and devious tendencies, so the exact distinction took a backseat to the immediate issue of repairs and restarting.

The shutdown comes as the LHC was preparing to collect new data on the Higgs Boson, a fundamental particle it discovered in 2012, NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel reported. The Higgs is believed to endow other particles with mass, and it is considered to be a cornerstone of the modern theory of particle physics.

Researchers have seen some hints in recent data that other, yet-undiscovered particles might also be generated inside the LHC. If those other particles exist, they could revolutionize researcher’s understanding of everything from the laws of gravity, to quantum mechanics. Unfortunately, Marsollier says, scientists will have to wait while workers bring the machine back online. Repairs will take a few days, but getting the machine fully ready to smash might take another week or two. “It may be mid-May,” he says.

I suppose the animal felt superior when surrounded by microscopic particles. Its legacy will be cemented as one of the great underdog stories of all time. May it rest in peace.

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