Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Flashforward follows the lives of scientists and engineers at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as they cope with the aftermath of a global event that projects humankind’s consciousness forward 21 years. In the book, the ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider provides the setting for the “flashforward” event. How much of Sawyer’s portrayal of the Large Hadron Collider, ALICE, and CERN is fact, and how much is fiction? Read on to find out.

Q: Is CERN real?

A: Yes. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is located near Geneva, Switzerland. CERN was founded in 1954 to provide a foundation for collaboration among European countries in basic nuclear physics research. Today, it is particle physics that drives research at CERN, and scientists from all over the world collaborate on experiments at the laboratory, but the organization’s essential mission remains the same. 

Q: What about the Large Hadron Collider?

A: The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, is a real particle accelerator on the French-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland. Construction of the accelerator was completed in 2008. The accelerator is located 100 meters (330 feet) underground in a ring 27 kilometers (16.5 miles) around. Starting in late 2009, the LHC will accelerate hair-thin beams of particles to a whisker below the speed of light and steer them to collide, using thousands of powerful superconducting magnets chilled to 1.9 degrees above absolute zero. The data from these high-energy particle collisions will yield discoveries about the nature of the physical universe.

Q: What is the ALICE experiment?

A: ALICE is one of four massive particle detectors located at the LHC. The goal of the ALICE experiment is to measure the properties of a state of matter that physicists believe existed just after the Big Bang.  To create this state of matter, called the quark-gluon plasma, the LHC will collide lead ions in the center of the ALICE detector for about one month every year.

Q: What about the Higgs boson?

A: Finding the Higgs boson is one of the top priorities for scientists at two of the other LHC experiments: ATLAS and CMS. The Higgs boson, which will be searched for in the collisions of protons at the LHC, may be the key to understanding why elementary particles—and thus everything in the Universe—has mass. This elusive particle is also being sought by scientists at Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator, near Chicago, Illinois.

If the Higgs is discovered at the LHC, the discovery will be very different from that described in Flashforward. Rather than instantaneous confirmation in a control room, the Higgs will be very difficult for scientists to find. It’s predicted that a Higgs boson may be produced in only one out of every billion collisions at the LHC – at most. The real rate could be even lower: perhaps only one out of every 10 trillion proton collisions will produce a Higgs. Scientists will spend months, or even years, sifting through and analyzing mountains of data before a discovery can be announced. And that’s if the Higgs exists at all; it’s possible that scientists might find something else to explain the origin of mass, or perhaps even nothing at all.

Q: Is the LHC colliding particles right now?

A: In Sawyer’s novel, the LHC began colliding protons in 2006, and the first lead nuclei are smashed together in 2009. In reality, no particle collisions have yet taken place in the LHC. The first beams of protons circulated around the LHC ring on September 10, 2008, but nine days later a connection between two superconducting magnets melted, forcing the accelerator to shut down for repairs. The first collisions of protons in the LHC are now scheduled for winter 2009.

Q: Do the scientists at CERN come from all over the world?

A: Yes. CERN is run by twenty European countries and employs approximately 2,400 people from those same countries, but more than 9,500 scientists from all over the world use CERN’s facilities for research. Those 9,500 people represent more than 100 nationalities and half the world’s particle physicists. The official languages of CERN are English and French.

Q: What about North America?

A: The United States, Canada and Mexico are not member states of CERN, but are deeply involved in research at the Large Hadron Collider. More than 1,700 people working for universities and national laboratories in the United States participate in the LHC project. Canadian scientists from 12 institutes contribute to the LHC and to the ATLAS experiment.

Q: What does the LHC control building look like?

A: The CERN Control Centre, from where all CERN’s accelerators are controlled and monitored, is quite different than the one described on the first page of Flashforward. The CCC was completed in 2006, and CERN’s Web site has photos and video of the center. The CCC holds only a few offices and meeting rooms; in reality most of CERN’s office space is located in other buildings at the laboratory’s sites in Meyrin, Switzerland and Prevessin, France. The LHC experiments - ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb - have their own control rooms, separate from the CCC, located near their detector facilities.

Q: Could a flashforward really happen when the LHC collides lead nuclei?

A: No. For more fact and fiction regarding this question and the other physics mentioned in Flashforward, check out this video interview with CERN theoretical physicist John Ellis