August 9, 2009
When Mortals Work on Cosmic Time

Our guide, an acerbic Belizean named Albert, walked us up a hill, around a bend in the path and toward the weathered stone ziggurat and weedy surrounding structures that rose out of the jungle like a real estate development gone bad.

It was Xunantunich, the sacred Mayan pyramid carefully aligned with the sun, moon and stars and built layer upon layer over hundreds of years by successive generations until something went wrong — nobody knows exactly what — and the inhabitants simply left. I am not sure what most visitors think when they behold that crumbling majesty and mystery. As a former physicist, I thought of the Large Hadron Collider, another grandiose structure with cosmic aspirations and earthbound problems that could thwart its ambitions.

The collider, a giant machine outside Geneva that is hunting for subatomic particles that could help explain the origin of the universe, was already idle and behind schedule during the recent visit to Belize. And last week, the laboratory where the accelerator is located announced that when it finally starts smashing particles together this winter, it will run at only half power because of a disastrous electrical short that caused extensive damage and revealed problems with the experiment itself.

On the hill in Belize, we were sweating from the climb and distracted by Albert, who was squinting with his one good eye and poking a stick into a tarantula’s hole to entertain a family from Oklahoma. But standing before the ruin, I had at least a hint of the thought that gripped me with full force last week: In Xunantunich and now again in Switzerland, the vast reaches of cosmic time and space have a way of humbling the puny efforts and resources of mortals who try to figure out the universe.

It may have been the local rum punches, but to me the similarities between the two projects were clear-cut. The collider is a gargantuan structure at the European Center for Nuclear Research, called CERN, that scientists have built over generations to help them connect the smallest and largest structures in the universe, and perhaps make sense of why the cosmos is so hospitable to life.

Sans particles, Xunantunich was designed to do more or less the same thing in the Central American hills. Instead of quarks and leptons, the friezes ringing the pyramid depict the gods of heaven, earth and the underworld, and humanity’s place among them. The stone structures themselves were laid out according to careful astronomical observations to help priests, rulers and common folk alike organize their lives and accurately mark the passing of time.

And like Xunantunich, the collider these days is silent, if not abandoned. After $9 billion and 15 years in just the latest phase of CERN’s life, the collider — a multinational collaboration that includes the United States — has been idled by an electrical short involving its colossal magnets, leading some frustrated scientists to ask whether it will ever fulfill the dreams, and justify the money, that have been invested in it.

Many other scientists ardently believe that it would be an injustice if the collider, built in an underground ring 16 miles in circumference, were threatened by delays that are minuscule in comparison to the lifetime of the cosmos, which the experiment seeks in large measure to explain.

“I don’t see it in quite those apocalyptic terms,” said Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning particle theorist, who said he visited CERN just a few days ago and saw no signs of a Maya-style pullout. “Everyone there was unhappy about the earlier accident, but I didn’t get the feeling that there was panic or that they were resigned to anything but a delay.”

Still, Dr. Weinberg was heavily involved in trying to save an earlier project that became a monument to unfulfilled cosmological aspirations — the Superconducting Supercollider, now a muddy hole in Texas after problems with its cost and schedule led Congress to withdraw financing in the early 1990s.

And scientists watching the latest particle drama concede that as physics experiments get so large that they must be passed from generation to generation and expensive enough that a single country cannot even afford them, it does not take as much to deal a catastrophic blow to a project.

“When I was doing particle physics back in the ’60s, a three-month run was enormous,” said Allan Franklin, now a historian of science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “You put together the apparatus, you took the data and you analyzed it, and if you weren’t done in a year it was a failure.”

Now, with billions of dollars and thousands of scientific careers at stake in the CERN project, Dr. Franklin said, “if it fails, it’s almost a disaster for an entire field.”

Even the Large Hadron Collider has not been around as long as Xunantunich was before the Mayas mysteriously left it behind. The central pyramid, nicknamed El Castillo, was built like a birthday cake in three or four phases over roughly 300 years, starting sometime between A.D. 500 and 600, said Richard M. Leventhal, a professor of anthropology and director of the Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He has led many archeological digs at Xunantunich, which is located in the hills of western Belize near the border with Guatemala.

Scientists have variously proposed that earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, malaria and yellow fever led the Mayas to abandon Xunantunich. But Dr. Leventhal said he believed such explanations were beside the point.

What happens first, he says, is that a worldview or belief system underpinning a culture begins to weaken. Only then can some unfortunate event like a natural disaster, or an electrical short, threaten the whole system.

“All of these multigenerational projects are based upon a strong and ongoing belief system in how the world works,” Dr. Leventhal said. As long as that system stays intact, he said, “construction continues and is slightly modified within each generation to fit the current time.” If not, all bets are off.

In particle physics, that system is uninspiringly called the Standard Model, which accounts for all known matter but has one gap: the elusive Higgs boson. Physicists at the collider say they hope to capture that particle, which supposedly explains the origin of mass, and perhaps a few other particles that could point to an extension of the model.

For his part, Albert, who appeared to be very well read on the topic, took a hard line on the disappearance of the Mayas at Xunantunich, asserting that they were forced to leave solely because they failed to rotate their crops.

“There was no food,” said Albert, who said that he had some Maya blood on his mother’s side.

Whatever the true cause of the Maya exodus, a CERN spokesman, James Gillies, said that he did not expect the laboratory to suffer a similar fate any time soon. Mr. Gillies added that if, in some very distant future, visitors gazed on his laboratory’s ruins as I did on those at Xunantunich, there would probably be far fewer mysteries to ponder.

“I sincerely hope that if the human race has managed to survive that long,” Mr. Gillies said, “we will have left a big enough imprint on science that people will not have to speculate on what the priesthood of CERN was up to.”