Tuesday, September 30, 2008

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

Amid all the explosions, fireballs, airborne gas canisters, 250ft plumes of black smoke and general conflagration- related excitement that has filled newspapers, websites, TV and radio over the last day or so, you would easily be forgiven if you'd missed one of the more important news stories of the week.

So in case it passed you by, here it is again: the Large Hadron Collider has broken down, and won't be working again until the spring.

For those readers who haven't really cared up to now, the Large Hadron Collider (let's call it the LHC so we don't use up too many words) was launched on September 10 this year with the purpose of investigating the state of the cosmos in the moments immediately following the Big Bang.

The LHC is basically a whopping great underground doughnut with a circumference of 27km. It lives under a mountain on the Swiss/French border and fires subatomic particles at each other at unfeasibly high speeds.

When they hit each other they transmogrify into even smaller particles (or perhaps bigger ones – subs please check), in ways which are supposed to tell us everything we never knew about the origins of the universe and were always afraid to ask.

Click here!

You can't actually see with your own eyes what's going on inside – at least not not unless you've got spider-senses or you've guzzled too much Kryptonite – so the only video they could show on the telly when they fired it up was a load of physicists whooping and partying.

And if you've ever met a physicist, you'll know exactly how televisual that was.

However, the whole thing is now temporarily bust, thanks to a coolant leak in the electrical system.

And somehow that brings this failure of an almost inconceivably complicated gadget a whole lot closer to home. Because we've all experienced something similar, when the fridge makes things warm instead of cold, or the central heating does the opposite.

It's always the same question: do you chuck it out and buy a new one, do you get it repaired by a professional, or do you mend it yourself?

Now with our friend the LHC, the options are limited. You can't just walk into Currys, whack your 6.2bn euros down on the counter and say "A new Large Hadron Collider, my good fellow, and make it snappy." And you won't find an LHC Repairs section in any edition of the Yellow Pages this side of Alpha Centauri.

So our physicist chums have a whole lot of DIY ahead of them before the protons can dance and the Higgs bosons can sparkle once more under the bosky slopes of the Jura.

Some months ago an equivalent catastrophe struck the Dixon kitchen. The microwave started doing impressions of Guy Fawkes Night, and the Comptroller of Budgets decided that we couldn't afford a new one – or a repair service.

It was time to head online to find out (a) why the thing was making warmed-up ravioli look like it had been struck by cosmic rays that had taken a wrong turning somewhere outside the orbit of Jupiter and (b) what we could do about it.

And so it was that we stumbled across The Only Really Useful Piece Of Information On The Internet (official).

If you're interested you can find it here, but basically it involves taking out the old waveguide cover (you knew that already, didn't you?) cutting out a slice of fresh mica to the same shape and slotting it back in. You get the mica from a mica shop, natch.

We saved so much money by using this web-inspired wheeze (no trip to Currys, no teeth-sucking repair person) that we were able to pay for two foreign holidays and an iPod Touch with the change.

But now a new challenge awaits, of more LHC-like proportions. Last week Dixon Junior was on Bebo or some such when the computer made a noise like a train wreck and wouldn't reboot.

A helpful chap at Farpoint Developments in Walcot Street said it should be easy to fix: all you need is a new disk drive (£50), a screwdriver, and a certain amount of self-confidence. Roll on the weekend.

But if this column doesn't appear next Thursday, you'll know why. Either its writer has had an unfortunate entanglement with a very high voltage, or he has sold himself into slavery to pay for a new computer. Watch this space.

This column first appeared as a column on thisisbath.co.uk on September 25 2008.