With the most powerful modern-day atom smasher making headlines lately (“Giant Atom Smasher Revs Up,” “World’s Largest Atom Smasher Returns“), here’s a glimpse of the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) together with its primitive ancestry.
“Tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research… (CERN) with all the Magnets and Instruments.” By Julian Herzog (website) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.
Interior of the Westinghouse atom smasher (built 1937), August 2013. © Marni Blake Walter.
In 1937, as construction of the Westinghouse atom smasher was nearing completion, an article in Life magazine (August 30, 1937) proclaimed “Mightiest atom smasher at East Pittsburgh, PA: Biggest machine for investigating the smallest particles of matter is this 65-ft. atom smasher.” This machine generated 5 million volts, which accelerated particles from the top of the pressure tank to a target 47 ft. below. A cloud chamber and other analyzing equipment was located below the tank in the first floor of the lab building.
The target end of the Westinghouse atom smasher, ca. 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library and Archives.
In comparison, the CERN LHC is now the largest particle accelerator in the world: a 17-mile-long underground ring of superconducting magnets, near Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists are ramping up the machine’s beam energy to 13 teraelectronvolts (TeV) (approaching the speed of light). The CERN Control Centre operates the entire complex of accelerators and their infrastructure. For an interesting view of the facility, see this “designer’s tour” of the LHC.
The technological advancements over less than 80 years are mind-boggling. To some of us non-physicists, so are the experiments conducted, both then and now.
The Westinghouse atom smasher shortly after construction in 1937. Photo courtesy of the Senator John Heinz History Center, Detre Library and Archives.
In the late 1930s, before Westinghouse set upon its course of developing nuclear power plants, the scientists first set out to explore the unknown. In 1936 the Daily Journal of Commerce (Portland, OR) reported, “The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company has set out to do a job that has baffled scientists for nearly a century—the job of disintegrating the atom in hope of solving much of the mystery surrounding the structure of matter.” The article added, “The ultimate success of the experiment cannot be foreseen, … and it is not possible to predict what practical applications may result.” In 1940 the scientists demonstrated experiments “as amazing as the pseudo-scientific feats of Wellsian fantasy” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 30, 1940).
Today, CERN’s “About” webpage reads “What is the universe made of? How did it start? Physicists at CERN are seeking answers, using some of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators.” They are “probing the fundamental structure of the universe.” Current news talks about the search for dark matter, a fifth dimension, supersymmetry, antimatter, and the conditions of the Big Bang. Seems that, no matter what the decade, we are always on the brink of science fiction.
—By Marni Blake Walter