From Cern to Midlands engineers

Pen nib and part from Large Hadron Collider

This picture feels more powerful than anything I've ever reported on before.

What you can see here is a 150-year-old pen nib and part of the Cern Large Hadron Collider.

Both of these are objects that changed the world.

When Birmingham became the centre of pen nib manufacture it democratised writing for the masses. You can't underestimate the impact of cheap, reliable pens for the people.

And next to it, a vital section of the CERN experiment. Without it the world's largest, complex machine just wouldn't work.

Thanks to this clever strip of metal, physicists discovered the holy grail of their science, the Higgs boson.

Look closely and you'll see some similarities. Pieces of metal created by a tool stamping a regular but complex shape.

Crucial parts

What is so extraordinary is that these amazing objects, separated by 150 years, were made by the same Birmingham company.

It's easy to see how a pen nib works. You just dip it in the ink and write. But what does the complex looking strip Brandauer made for Cern do? Well it is fixed to the tubes which carry the beams of particles travelling inside the supercollider ring itself.

These tubes need to be very cold to help the massive superconducting magnets which work at low temperatures and which control the beam of particles. The tubes also need to be under vacuum. You can't control a particle beam if it's moving through air.

These tiny strips make that possible. They absorb energy produced by the beam so keeping things cooler for the magnets and also help preserve that all important vacuum.

What I found fascinating is that they weren't part of the original design for the supercollider at all. But Cern is so cutting edge the physicists were discovering new science that needed to be dealt with during construction.

Hence the strips which rather elegantly clip straight into place and solve two problems at once.

But that wouldn't be the last time CERN turned to Brandauer for help with a problem.

Avoid explosion

During early testing of the beam there was a problem with pressure build-up and that caused something people affectionately refer to here as the "little bang". It caused huge damage and big delays.

The solution was to create new pressure release valves all round the ring. Thousands of them.

It's Brandauer who made some amazing spider-like springs to fit over the pressure valve. They hold the valve in place to preserve the vacuum, but will safely spring off if there's a dangerous build up of gases and avoid another explosion.

You may think of Cern as a place for physicists but actually it's a world of technicians and engineering. Since no one has ever built a machine like this before it's not surprising there were problems along the way.

It's a tribute to the teams here that they managed to overcome those problems. And a tribute to engineering in the Midlands that they turned to us for expert help.

David Gregory-Kumar Article written by David Gregory-Kumar David Gregory-Kumar Science & Environment correspondent, BBC News

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