The Noise of the World: The Apocalypse and the Crazy Farm Scenario
The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has to be constantly monitored to detect possible effects of radiation. Sophie Houdart describes a machine designed to capture every potential sign of threat.
In a book entitled The Large Hadron Collider. Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe, Martin Beech, physician and professor of astronomy, starts his depiction of “Europe’s exultant shrine to nuclear physics”, the CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear research), as follows: “For over 20 years now, if you listened very carefully, the ground below the verdant fields of the Pays de Gex region of France has trembled very slightly and perhaps, just perhaps, faintly hummed”(Beech 2010, 41). In this in-between scientific zone, half in France, half in Switzerland, something apparently calls for a fabulous destiny. Most of the literature on the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) inevitably opens with the quasi-same rhetoric. As the biggest experimental device in the world, the LHC is a machine that accumulates superlatives: 100 meters under the ground, particles are accelerated to 99.9999991% of the speed of light, execute some 11245 rotations around the loop and collide one with each other about 600 million times per second … The incredible complexity supporting these records has been designed for an even more incredible aim: to provide “a journey inside the deepest structure of matter”, to discover “the fundamental laws that determine the behavior of nature”, to understand “the first principles that govern the universe” (Guidice 2010, 3), and to provide “insights into the origin of the universes”(Beech 2010, vii). Respect. Admiration. Adoration, even.
The question remains how such a peculiar site (the Pays de Gex and CERN, headquartered there) and the unraveling of cosmos’s mysteries are connected. How to commensurate one with the other?
Apocalyptic scenario for big machine
In March 2007, a complaint was filed against CERN by Louis Sancho and Walter L. Wagner (court case 1:2008cv00136), who had just created the association Citizens Against The Large Hadron Collider and wanted to pre-empt the LHC’s launch by demanding its postponement. As reported by Martin Beech, “the plaintiffs were not especially worried about the health and safety of the CERN engineers and researchers. Rather, and in some highly laudable sense, the plaintiffs were concerned about the potential death of all of humanity, an Earth-crushing 6.8 billion people, as well as the destruction of earth itself”. October 1st 2008. The case was closed and the complaint rejected under the motive that the suit revolved around a debate too “complex” that was beyond its jurisdiction but was “of concern to the whole world”. On the side of the physicists, the case was resolved in the statement that “our safety is assured by the fact that the world is already 4.5 billion years old – indeed, the very existence of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars are glittering testaments to the safety of the LHC. Nature has already run nearly half a million experiments, similar to that which will be conducted at the LHC during the next decade, in our upper atmosphere, and Earth, philosophical quibbling aside, is still here and we are still very much alive (50).” The astronomical objects are taken as proof – as valuable witnesses – that the LHC cannot harm us.
The conclusion that we can draw from such an argument is that the LHC is on Nature’s side. By extension, this position alone provides proof for its own innocence and simultaneously disarms the question of responsibility. The situation on which the controversy is based is interesting: It is not the experimenting performed within that provides information on what happens on the outside (the state of the world, the mysteries of the cosmos), but the state of the world itself (the fact that the world still exists as we speak) that provides information on what is going on within – and, in this instance, also guarantees that what is going on is not likely to put us in danger.
While it is up to the theorists to vouch for the impossibility of a black hole that will swallow us all up, it is only specialists in our very immediate surroundings who are qualified to assess the LHC’s realistic effects on the world. Sonja Kleiner heads the “Environment” Department. From the outset, she gives me a very detailed description of the perimeters of her department. The section managed by Sonja is in charge of measuring radiation and protecting the environment. Radiology has, of course, existed as a practice area since CERN was set up, but over the last decade, this aspect of CERN’s work has had to be rebalanced with the “protection” side and the various environmental aspects connected with standard industrial equipment. “We carry out environmental monitoring. We are responsible for carrying out a measuring programme that we take to the authorities and host countries.” The Environment Department covers eleven areas: water, air, soils, ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, dangerous substances, waste, energy, noise, natural environment protection and the prevention of environmental incidents. A hundred or so measuring and sampling stations are spread out over the entire zone defined by the LHC loop, but “we still want to refine our surveillance net,” specifies Sonja.
A few days after my first visit, I meet up with Julien in the “Environment” Department for “Wednesday’s routine”. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. I accompany Julien as he collects a series of readings taken every fortnight. “All the elements we’re going to look at have a lifespan,” Julien begins. This is why other samples are taken (especially from rivers) at longer intervals (once a month). We set out on our circuit at Station 910 where are recuperated the waste of the entire LHC loop used to cool the gigantic LHC installation. 230 cubic meters of cooling water are discharged here. In the “station”, the small pre-fab building behind us, Julien carries out “conventional measurings” of temperature, pH, water muddying and conductivity. An amount of water is continually automatically taken as a sample. “Everything on the site is found here. For example, if a truck arrives with chemical products and there’s a leak, or a tank that freezes and bursts, or a handling error, whatever scenario, anything that spills will drain if it rains or there’s a storm, and it’ll spread the pollution. We have to be able to collect all the different water and measure it all.” The work would be less tricky if the measurements did not also change according to the vagaries of the weather. “The measures all change if it’s raining but also, and above all, (and it’s very important in terms of measuring) if it snows, and the villages salt the roads. We find the salt in our measurements!” The monitoring stations allow them to record an “electrocardiogram” of the LHC (what it inhales, what it exhales), on which the sounds of the world are recorded – snowfall and salting but also, as we shall see, disasters that occur on the other side of the world. “In general, that’s why we take these measurements. If a tank is leaking, we have to be capable of measuring it”, muses Julien. Almost as an aside, he adds that, on request, the staff at the Environment Department sometimes carry out readings on a higher frequency, even “every day… for example, if something happens on the other side of the world… Fukushima is measured… but that’s not official. The IRSN [the french Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety] took measurements, but they weren’t the only ones…” These filters, like all the others he collects, are analyzed in CERN’s laboratory as well as by another Swiss organization. Nothing disappears and everything is transformed, Julien says on several occasions, like a litany.
We reach another station and enter the building. This time, we take a sample of from each of the station’s two ventilation shafts. The LHC requires two ventilation units because it is circular and air must be drawn in from both sides. “We take a sample of each ventilation. We measure the aerosols, very fine dust in suspension in the air.” We move on to the next stations, one after the other. Each station records very different aspects. One of them collects 30,000 cubic meters per hour, another only 2,000. “We don’t want to use statistics to establish significance because we’re talking about very small figures. We have to be able to take into consideration things that might appear negligible.” We return to the car, leaving the main road to set off along a track that takes us through planted fields. Julien points out a field of asparagus on my right where they take samples every year.
We return to the “Environment” Department and unload the car. All the samples we have brought back are distributed right away. A thick binder of forms that Julien had spent much of the day filling with (type of measurements) go to Fabrice, the plastic drums and glass bottles go to Martine, who also archives the filters.
In order for it to play its role to the full, this sentinel has a topography. It’s the zone defined by the LHC loop that constitutes it. Inside the loop, everything, or almost everything, is enlisted in the monitoring system. Acting like surveillance towers, the stations allow us to “see” a great number of things: ventilation that comes in and comes out, but also atmospheric changes that occur here and there on our planet. Here, it is to the air and its properties, amongst other things, that we owe this potential of vision.
A crazy farm scenario
Back from collecting air, and also water and soil samples, I sit down at the table with Fabrice from the Environment Department, to study a map of the region that delineates the boundaries of LHC. All around us are measuring instruments, vats, pipettes and flasks. We are in the Department’s analysis laboratory. “We take the worst scenario. We do our calculations with the worst nuclide, phosphorus-32. We imagine that it’s passed into the air and entered into the cows’ milk that will be given to children, for example. It’s kind of the German way of seeing things, and we call it the “Crazy Farm Scenario”, which consists of always imagining a child who’s wallowing in the mud and drinking stagnant water, and breathing the air in the same place without ever moving from there. Another version, on the contrary, consists of determining realistic lifestyles. We’ll imagine that people grow their own food, but really, realistically, it’s quite hard to produce 15% of it yourself! Here, we adopt a fairly realistic model, but we still take into account the worst nuclide… We imagine a field and say that it might have cows in it, for example.” These scenarios are used to size up the monitoring installations. “We really do measure what people breathe. And we’ve never found anything – totally insignificant amounts. Except for once; one measurement above the natural value, and the physicist was very pleased because it validated his model. And even then, the measurement in itself was negligible. So we continue to measure nothing”.
Having to adapt to the shifting legislative environment in Europe (which has recently included new protocols related to the Euratom Directive), staff members at LHC have now to consider laws far stricter with regard to vegetation and animals. As Fabrice explained, “We’re going to have to keep at it and look at the impact on the mosses themselves. Now we’ll have to concern ourselves with moss, cows and trees…I ask myself how far it will go!”
Alongside the many and unexpected connections it establishes, the LHC seems to endeavor to disconnect a certain number of things. What staff members at CERN refuse to connect is the LHC and industrial pollution, or the LHC and the demise of the Earth. In order to convince people outside of CERN of these disconnections, measurements have to be refined to the point where they “measure nothing”, or make the micro black holes into the perfectly inoffensive avatars of cosmological black holes. One needs to remind himself or herself continually that scale counts, and that all the superlatives duly employed to describe what goes on at CERN should not lead to confusion: In spite of the colossal aspect of the machine, it is the infinitely small and the infinitely nothing that it describes. The operations through which this scale of work continues to be connected to the world, to humankind and to the universe become crucial: homogeneization, stabilization, simulation, synchronization, correlation, alignment, miniature reproduction and so on.
As a potential site of the drama, the LHC is subject to extremely close scrutiny, extremely careful measures. By equipping itself to tirelessly document the miniscule, the LHC picks up more of the noise of the world than it needs. From being a place vulnerable to a big disaster, it becomes a place through which danger becomes perceptible in its smallest aspects – of whatever nature that danger may be.
 “The United States Defendants move for dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or for summary judgment on other grounds” (Order 2008).
Beech, Martin. 2010. The Large Hadron Collider. Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe. London: Springer Science and Business Media.
Giudice, Gian Francesco. 2010. A Zeptospace Odyssey. A Journey into the Physics of the LHC. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Order Granting Federal Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. Signed by Judge Helen Gillmor on September 26, 2008.