Weasel Apparently Shuts Down World's Most Powerful Particle Collider

Apr 29, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 4:04 pm

A small mammal has sabotaged the world's most powerful scientific instrument.

The Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile superconducting machine designed to smash protons together at close to the speed of light, went offline overnight. Engineers investigating the mishap found the charred remains of a furry creature near a gnawed-through power cable.

"We had electrical problems, and we are pretty sure this was caused by a small animal," says Arnaud Marsollier, head of press for CERN, the organization that runs the $7 billion particle collider in Switzerland. Although they had not conducted a thorough analysis of the remains, Marsollier says they believe the creature was "a weasel, probably." (Update: An official briefing document from CERN indicates the creature may have been a marten.)

The shutdown comes as the LHC was preparing to collect new data on the Higgs Boson, a fundamental particle it discovered in 2012. The Higgs is believed to endow other particles with mass, and it is considered to be a cornerstone of the modern theory of particle physics.

Researchers have seen some hints in recent data that other, yet-undiscovered particles might also be generated inside the LHC. If those other particles exist, they could revolutionize researcher's understanding of everything from the laws of gravity, to quantum mechanics.

Unfortunately, Marsollier says, scientists will have to wait while workers bring the machine back online. Repairs will take a few days, but getting the machine fully ready to smash might take another week or two. "It may be mid-May," he says.

These sorts of mishaps are not unheard of, says Marsollier. The LHC is located outside of Geneva. "We are in the countryside, and of course we have wild animals everywhere." There have been previous incidents, including one in 2009, when a bird is believed to have dropped a baguette onto critical electrical systems.

Nor are the problems exclusive to the LHC: In 2006, raccoons conducted a "coordinated" attack on a particle accelerator in Illinois.

It is unclear whether the animals are trying to stop humanity from unlocking the secrets of the universe.

Of course, small mammals cause problems in all sorts of organizations. Yesterday, a group of children took National Public Radio off the air for over a minute before engineers could restore the broadcast.

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And now, a story about something small taking down something very, very, very big. The world's largest scientific instrument, the Large Hadron Collider, is an underground concrete ring 17 miles around. NPR's science editor Geoff Brumfiel has visited the site.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It's beautiful. It's on the French-Swiss border just outside of Geneva. It's really - rolling fields and pastures. I mean, it's a great place.


And that's where scientists take tiny particles - smaller than atoms - and send them flying around the ring into each other. From those collisions, they learn more about physics.

BRUMFIEL: Sometime last night, they experienced an electrical problem - a disruption to the electrical systems.

MCEVERS: Which shorted the magnets, and everything came to a stop.

BRUMFIEL: They sent a team out to investigate. And they found a chewed-through cable and what used to be some kind of small, furry mammal near one of the power transformers.

CORNISH: According to CERN, the organization that runs the collider, the culprit was probably a little weasel - no, seriously. This collider has been knocked out by animals before. And it's not the only one.

BRUMFIEL: A few years ago there was an incident where a piece of bread short-circuited a power transformer. They think a bird dropped it in there. A few years before that at a collider in Illinois, they had a raccoon problem. So animals are a recurring problem for scientific progress.

MCEVERS: Maybe it's time to hire Carl the groundskeeper from "Caddyshack."


BILL MURRAY: (As Carl Spackler) Hello, Mr. Gopher. Yeah, it's me, Mr. Squirrel. Yeah, hi. I'm just a harmless squirrel, not a plastic explosive or anything - nothing to be worried about. So in the words of Jean Paul Sarte, au revoir, gopher. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.