The LHC's Secret Weapon

The Collider's Data Infrastructure Will Be the Real Breakthrough On Wednesday, scientists in Geneva shot a proton beam...

The Collider's Data Infrastructure Will Be the Real Breakthrough

On Wednesday, scientists in Geneva shot a proton beam through a 17-mile circular tunnel crisscrossing the Franco-Swiss border. The British media called the occasion "Big Bang Day." Luddites worldwide trembled in anticipation of black holes. And, somewhat inevitably, a YouTube video of lab-coated physicists rapping about it peaked at over a million views.More than twenty years in the making, the Large Hadron Collider is an awesome accomplishment, the scientific behemoth of our age. It has overcome copious hurdles: our era of fierce nationalism, the limits of technology, the sheer logistical nightmare of its own operation. And, while its imminent revelations about the nature of matter will undoubtedly occupy the scientific limelight over the next few years, it's these logistics that I'm interested in.This is because, unbeknownst to many, the LHC has a secret weapon: the Grid.It's a solution to one of the LHC's most important problems: the 15 Petabytes of data it will spit out annually, none of which can just be stored on site at the CERN in Switzerland. Rather, the data needs to be globally parceled out to the 7,000 physicists involved in the project.Hence the Grid: a system of dedicated 10 gigabit per second fiber-optic cables connecting the LHC's monumental magnetic detectors directly to the CERN computing center, then throughout the world in a three-tiered system. First, the raw data is tossed onto tape storage, then transmitted on the fiber-optic cables to 11 "Tier One" research facilities responsible for redistributing it to 150 "Tier Two" centers, mostly universities, located all around the world. Arriving there via standard Internet protocols, the data is disseminated to physicists worldwide for their irreplaceable real-live human scrutiny.The history of the Internet is dotted with sporadic jumps in speed and efficiency, but this tops them all: the Grid is 10,000 times faster than the fastest existing broadband. It's huge. I could throw around approximations like, "it would take 25 days to transfer the 400,000 movies on IMDB," but suffice to say it's a massive upgrade from the kinds of Internet speeds we're used to.It's appropriate that the CERN would implement this system. After all, the research facility was fundamental in implementing the Internet protocols that would enable me to sit at my kitchen table and interface blindly with a nebulous and globally-distributed network of information. I see it as inevitable that the Grid, or a system like it, is going to mold our communications, our media, our daily lives, in ways we can't possibly imagine or predict.The computer scientist and sci-fi scribe Vernor Vinge, no uncertain proponent of the Technological Singularity theory, wrote that (.pdf) "every time our ability to access information and to communicate it to others is improved...we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence." What he meant was that the end of the human era (which he argued would occur "[not before ] 2005 or after 2030") would happen as large computer networks and their users "woke up" as a separate intelligent entity. A doomsday with a whimper, not a bang; "even the largest avalanches are triggered by small things," Vinge added.Could such a small thing as a new network cause such an avalanche? Will the combination of the Grid's speed and its implicit access to the dark secrets of the physical universe enable it to start connecting the dots?Sure, it's sci-fi, but our understanding of intelligence is dubious. The Internet contains more information, and has more chaotic (and almost "natural") complexity, than any intentional Artificial Intelligence project; and what secret, what dark and troubled corner of humanity, does it not contain, somewhere? If we could figure out a way to make it understand our questions, could the Internet pass a Turing test? Undoubtedly, yes, although we may be surprised at what it would tell us about ourselves.Of course, I don't foresee the Grid going Skynet on us. But if the history of the Internet tells us anything, it's that we can't predict the nature of its evolution. Besides, Vinge wasn't spooking us when he wrote that "even the egalitarian view of an Internet that wakes up along with all mankind can be viewed as a nightmare." Vinge's "egalitarian view" seems strangely probable, and especially nightmarish in the case of the Grid because it is so intimately linked to a fountainhead of certain scientific revolution.A prediction: even if the Large Hadron Collider offers us final, unquestionable answers about the nature of the Universe, it's the Grid that will change the world, slipping in like a legislative footnote and blooming, the final nail in the coffin of the twentieth century.Let's just hope it's on our side.Photo from MSNBC