making things work

The most incredible headline of the year, if not the decade, or century, just passed through the news wires, largely unnoticed. We, humanity, built the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, in Switzerland and France. We turned it on. It worked.

Why is this the coolest headline of the decade?

It took more than 8,000 physicists from 85 countries to design it and put it together — countless engineers and technicians, with countless opportunities for a mistake to be made, or a number to be miscalculated.

It’s a stunning testament to the power of humans to work together to do something incredibly complicated. And it worked.

When I visited early in 2008, it felt like going to the shrine of technology. It is a machine like no other, a 27km loop of engineered beauty. The magnets and sensors fill underground caverns the size of buildings. It’s a magical world of copper, silicon, aluminum, and stainless steel.

Why does it impress me so, this feat of engineering?

Probably the first thing that most of us independently make is a finger painting, or a stack of wooden blocks we imagine as a castle. It’s where we start in this amazing, lifelong process of learning to build complex things from simple parts. Steadily, we learn through life to imagine new and ever more complex things, and how we might make or build them. The process of building something new and complex from nothing but an idea is wonderful to me.

I like watching this process at all different scales, and I see unbelievable reward on the faces of people who successfully turn their concepts into things that work. I know from my own experience that watching something that you’ve conceived actually work as planned is the drug that keeps makers, scientists, engineers, and artists addicted to what they do.

As we grow in skill and expertise, we learn to finish things, and to finish them with craftsmanship and higher quality. As we grow in knowledge about the physics of the universe and how materials work, we learn to do a very beautiful thing: we learn that by building models — blueprints, equations on paper, computer simulations, and the like — we can make something never made before. And we learn that the mastery of two skills — predicting the behavior of machines, and knowing how to build them to the right specifications — makes this drug particularly powerful.

It is testament to the power of our little ape brains, that we are able not just to control, but to predict … and to be right.

We also start learning to integrate other people’s sub-components and thoughts and ideas into a product or project. People specialize, and then engineering teams can be built — things that collectively can build very complex items that are truly astounding when you sit back and look at them.

A car, any car, represents an amazing amount of engineering, and the fact that the car will start as it comes off the production line and be a working machine is quite incredible. An MP3 player or new cellphone is equally amazing in its design and engineering implementation.

As individuals who contribute to the long list of science and engineering and design achievements that go into any complex thing, we makers find a wondrous joy and pride and fulfillment in contributing part of the puzzle.

And the Large Hadron Collider is the ultimate wondrous expression of all of those skills and desires to make something new and beautiful that works. It is a Swiss watch of unprecedented precision and scale. Oh, how I could wax lyrical. But the story is even better than everything I’ve written so far.

Why did we build the LHC at all? It is, in fact, just a science experiment. But what an experiment! Humans imagined, then designed, and have now built a machine conceived to answer the deepest questions we know how to ask about the physical universe around us.

We know that things have mass; they are heavy to lift. But we actually don’t know why the elementary particles that comprise matter have mass. This incredible machine should be able to tell us why.

After a few days of operation, a faulty connection between two magnets triggered a shutdown of the LHC. It will mean a delay (the LHC will be operational again in spring 2009, after a winter dormancy), but if that were the biggest problem I had turning on a machine like that, I’d be stoked.

Apart from just impressing me with wonder, the LHC project makes me feel good about being human. That we can imagine, theorize, model, and understand our universe. That we support science and knowledge. That multinational teams of exceptional individuals can work harmoniously to make something profound.

It gives me hope that we can actually solve humanity’s larger challenges: water, energy, and sustainability.

Make something beautiful. Make it work.