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Science and the Large Hadron Collider: a probe into instrumentation, periodization and classification

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On September 19, 2008, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Switzerland, began the world’s highest energy experiments as a probe into the structure of matter and forces of nature. Just nine days after the gala start-up, an explosion occurred in the LHC tunnel that brought the epic collider to a complete standstill. In light of the catastrophic incident that disrupted the operation of the LHC, the paper investigates the relation of temporality to the cycle of work in science, and raises the question: What kind of methodological value should we ascribe to events such as crises or breakdowns? Drawing upon and integrating classical anthropological themes with two and a half years of fieldwork at the LHC particle accelerator complex, the paper explores how the incident in September, which affected the instrument, acquaints us with the distribution of work in the laboratory. The incident discloses that the organization of science is not a homogenous ensemble, but marked by an enormous diversity of tasks and personnel, at the heart of which lies the opposition of theory and practice, or pure and applied. This opposition not only forms the source and sanction of the intricate division of labor found in high-energy physics, but also provides a satisfactory answer to every question involving the interface of experimental science and engineering skill.

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