Diamonds in the data: the LHC is back (and better than ever)

Less cats; more physics.

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The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is back. If you foresee “been there, done that” ennui, don’t let it ruin the moment. After all, we didn’t know that we craved insights into the Higgs boson until researchers found it.

It’s likely that the newly upgraded collider will give us something else we didn’t know we wanted. This is a long-established pattern for innovation. We have recently learned, for instance, that Google Images was conceived in order to find pictures of Jennifer Lopez. It is somehow disappointing but not surprising: we already knew that the creators of YouTube were searching for a way to view Janet Jackson’s accidentally exposed nipple.

So, it’s a good time to be reminded that our higher purposes can also bear fruit. The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) has discovered a glittering array of subatomic particles but it also gave us the internet. And that’s not all: other Cern spin-offs include cancer therapies, new medical imaging technologies, touch screens and major improvements to solar panels.

The next unsought spin-off is likely to be in data processing. As boring as it sounds, this will almost certainly be the key to every innovation over the next 50 years. Learning to sift data – whether presented in pictures, strings of numbers, or words – will be vital for breaking through the information fog of the 21st century.

Cern is about to become very good at mining data for insight. In the new runs of the LHC, there will be a billion collisions per second. The subsequent events – involving particle characteristics, trajectories, lifetimes, and so on – are what enable Cern’s scientists to find the physics answers they want, but the volume of information is overwhelming. Most of the collisions will produce nothing of interest, with only a few hundred per second worth tracking. Those are selected using complex and subtle algorithms; data from the rest is discarded. It’s not easy to make those selections, which is why searching and sifting algorithms are likely to be one major spin-off from the collider’s development.

Data compression and storage will also be pushed to new heights by the physics going on in Geneva. Every year, the collider creates the equivalent of over 250 years of HD video in data, much of which has to be archived. US researchers illustrated the value of long-term archiving recently when they released new results that used four-year-old data to pin down the characteristics of the Higgs boson.

Cern researchers have already identified a new species of particle using archived data and the ongoing analysis will help direct new experiments. However, the truly exciting breakthrough is probably not in the data but in the way the data is handled.

Thanks to Cern, the world now has a new network: the Grid. It connects over 200,000 computers across the world, making their processing power available to researchers looking to carry out particular searches or computations in LHC data. The software and networking innovations needed to create the Grid are certain to fuel developments outside of physics. Medicine will benefit: new possibilities in distributed computing are already allowing people to volunteer the spare capacity of their Android phone or tablet to help in the hunt for new pharmaceutical drugs.

Medical innovations are low-hanging fruit, however. As with the internet, techniques developed for esoteric physics will trickle down to enable us all to perform tasks that we haven’t yet realised are essential to modern life. If we have learned how to discard boring experimental results, for instance, perhaps we could speed up internet data transfer by stripping out all images of cats. Because of physics, we can dare to dream.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article appears in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special