Kurt Andersen revels in an impressive set of extremes — the largest machine ever built and the coldest place in the universe, the Large Hadron Collider:
The L.H.C., which operates under the auspices of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, cern, is an almost unimaginably long-term project. It was conceived a quarter-century ago, was given the green light in 1994, and has been under construction for the last 13 years, the product of tens of millions of man-hours. It’s also gargantuan: a circular tunnel 17 miles around, punctuated by shopping-mall-size subterranean caverns and fitted out with more than $9 billion worth of steel and pipe and cable more reminiscent of Jules Verne than Steve Jobs.
The believe-it-or-not superlatives are so extreme and Tom Swiftian they make you smile. The L.H.C. is not merely the world’s largest particle accelerator but the largest machine ever built. At the center of just one of the four main experimental stations installed around its circumference, and not even the biggest of the four, is a magnet that generates a magnetic field 100,000 times as strong as Earth’s. And because the super-conducting, super-colliding guts of the collider must be cooled by 120 tons of liquid helium, inside the machine it’s one degree colder than outer space, thus making the L.H.C. the coldest place in the universe.
To what end?
The goal — and it’s a hope, a dream, a set of strong suspicions, rather than a certainty — is to achieve a deeper, better, truer understanding of the fundamental structure and nature of existence. In other words, it’s one of the most awesome scientific enterprises of all time, even though it looks like a monumental folly. Or else, possibly, the reverse.
All sorts of people make pilgrimages to the L.H.C. simply in order to be awestruck, the way they visit Stonehenge or Machu Picchu or the pyramids.
When I return from time in a new city and review the photos I’ve taken, I am surprised to find they’re invariably of two types: 1) signs; and 2) superlatives. On the latter, I enjoy visually documenting the highest, largest, extremest, coldest, utmostest, extremest of a place. Somehow, superlatives mark that I have been there.
Take a look at the L.H.C superlatives for yourself.