Particle deceleration

It was supposed to be the most important moment in modern science. But the launch in September of the Large Hadron Collider, the $10 billion particle accelerator located under Geneva, turned out to be one of history’s largest anti-climaxes. An electrical fault that occurred just days after the machine was switched on delayed experiments for at least two months.

However, the computer system specifically designed to handle the gargantuan amounts data the LHC will (hopefully) produce has so far been more successful. Built by CERN, the organisation behind the LHC and which employed Tim Berners-Lee when he invented the world wide web, the Grid as it is called is expected by some to have an equally revolutionary impact on computing.

The Grid is a network of 1,000 computers located in 33 countries, connected via fibre optic cable, that shares not only data, but processing resources. It is already being used to process seismological data with the aim of predicting earthquakes, and were telcos to build the required fibre-optic network it could be used to improve the performance of the consumer web.

But all was not well with the LHC’s IT component. Hours before the accelerator was switched on, a group of Greek hackers were one step away from controlling a 12,500-ton electromagnet that serves as one of the machine’s four detectors.

The intruders posted a note on the machine’s network introducing themselves as ‘the Greek Security Team’, mocking the system’s poor security and calling the IT staff responsible for it “a bunch of schoolkids.”

The hackers said they had no intention of interfering with the operation of the LHC, but added, “We’re pulling your pants down because we don’t want to see you running around naked looking to hide yourselves when the panic comes.”

Scientists fighting off the attack on the ‘Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Experiment’, which is competing with the Atlas detector to find evidence of the Higgs boson particle, reportedly described the intrusion as “a scary experience”.

CERN spokesperson James Gillies said, “It was quickly detected and there seems to be no harm done. From what we can tell, someone was making the point that CMS was hackable.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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