A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine (I will not call it a “war,” as that might offend Czar Vlad and his friends) for the nth time, my thoughts turned to the consequences for the CERN laboratory and for upcoming research at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]. It was clear that Putin would blackmail Europe using his oil and gas supplies, leading to a spike in energy prices and a corresponding spike in CERN’s budget.
Of course I didn’t foresee the heat waves and drought that have swept Europe, or the maintenance problems at France’s nuclear plants, which have made the energy crisis that much worse. (Even though global climate change is now quite obvious, and the trends are partially predictable, one can’t predict what will happen in any given year.) I am not familiar with the budgetary consequences of these higher energy prices for CERN operations, but they cannot be good.
Now comes word via the Wall Street Journal that power shortages, rather than mere budget considerations, may require CERN to cut back its substantial energy usage, in order to stabilize the power grid. The LHC, which just restarted in July after a couple of years of upgrades, is the largest power consumer at the CERN lab. Much of that power is used to keep the giant machine extremely cold so that its powerful magnets can function. It takes many weeks to cool the accelerator down to 1.9 degrees above absolute zero (i.e. a bit colder than the temperatures found in deep space, far from any stars) so one can’t just flip the LHC on and off like a light switch. Clearly CERN will try first to curtail other operations in times of a power crunch and keep the LHC cold, so as not to have to shut it down for months at a time. But I would not be surprised if this year’s LHC run is somewhat curtailed, for one or another reason.
That’s too bad, but it’s just the way it is. We have far bigger problems at a time of war (oops, I wasn’t going to call it that…) And we are fortunate that, in contrast to the 1930s, when the ill-timed discovery of the neutron coincided with Hitler’s rise to dictatorship and led to a rapid nuclear arms race, ongoing particle physics research focuses on much less dangerous questions — despite what the current ridiculous conspiracy theories about CERN may claim. I am grateful that, unlike our ancestors a couple of generations back, we particle physicists do not currently face the risk of putting new, catastrophic power in the hands of power-hungry, blood-thirsty autocrats. (No, Vlad, of course I don’t mean anyone in particular; and besides, you already can destroy entire continents of people if you feel like it.)
CERN was intended as a peace project: a pan-Western-European organization, founded after a time of war that had torn the continent apart. In its convention, it is stated that “The Organization shall have no concern with work for military requirements and the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available.” After the end of the Cold War, it further expanded to the rest of the continent and even beyond. It is not yet seriously wounded by this new period of conflict in Europe. But like everyone else from Vladivostok to Lisbon, it feels the pain.