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Beginning the Big Science Tour

For the next decade or so, if you want to see the biggest science projects on Earth, Europe is the place to go. One one hand, you have the $8 billion Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle collider, which is in the final stages of construction at the CERN nuclear research center on the French-Swiss border. And on the other hand you have the $13 billion ITER experimental fusion reactor to be built in the French countryside near Marseille.

The scientific shrines are already the object of pilgrimages - by researchers as well as journalists - and over the next 10 days, we'll be sending back dispatches from our own midsummer sojourn to the holy sites.

The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, is the latest in a series of "Big Bang" machines aimed at finding exotic subatomic particles that theorists think should exist but have never been seen. No. 1 on the most-wanted list is the Higgs boson, a.k.a. the "God Particle," which is thought to be responsible for mass itself (yes, the m in E=mc2). Other suspects include candidates for dark matter, as well as particles that may hint at spatial dimensions beyond the three we can perceive (while giving string theorists something to cheer about).

Along the way, physicists could find mini-black holes, plus new insights about exotic quarks and the balance of matter vs. antimatter. That's sparked some worries that the LHC could destroy the universe - worries that the LHC's scientists are trying to put to rest.

The physicists have their own, less cosmic worries: Big science tends to follow the rule of pinball, as laid out in "The Soul of a New Machine," Tracy Kidder's book on the computer-chip industry: "If you win, you get to play again." Some of the folks working on the LHC say they'll need some really, really big wins if they're ever going play again. If the LHC doesn't find what scientists expect to see, that may be scientifically interesting - but it will make lawmakers think twice about putting up billions of dollars more for the next, next "Big Bang" machine.

The engineering challenges involved in bringing the LHC to life are as much a part of the story as the promised scientific returns. Due in large part to an accident involving a faulty magnet, the Large Hadron Collider's startup has been postponed until next spring. We'll aim to provide an on-the-ground update on how the builders are coping.

To learn more about the LHC, check out the tales from past journalistic pilgrims at Seed magazine, National Public Radio, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

After a few days at CERN (and, ahem, a long weekend in Paris), we'll be heading over to Cadarache, home of the French nuclear research effort and the winner of the international competition to become the site of the world's most advanced fusion experiment. Right now there's not a whole lot to see. The builders are just starting to clear the site for construction. But scientists and engineers are already laying their plans, and the controversies have already begun.

ITER is an acronym that stands for "International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor," but you don't see that spelled out much in the press materials for the project. The fact that the thermonuclear angle is downplayed is apparently aimed at avoiding an outcry from anti-nuclear activists, even though the project's leaders insist the reactor will be totally safe (PDF file). Instead, the project emphasizes that ITER is Latin for "the way." 

But is it really the way? ITER's magnetic containment vessel - or tokamak, to use the Russian-derived acronym - is today's most favored approach to commercial fusion. But there are other proposed approaches out there, and the backers of those alternatives have heaped criticism on the "tokamakers." Last year, an article in the journal Science said ITER may never lead to a viable technology for future fusion reactors, drawing a sharp response from ITER's backers.

Greenpeace and other environmental campaigners, meanwhile, argue that the billions being spent on fusion research should be used instead to address the climate change crisis and to develop renewable-energy technologies.

During our brief visit to Cadarache, we'll get a look at the site and find out how scientists expect the experiment to turn out. In the meantime, you can learn more by clicking over to Seed magazine as well as this BBC Q&A.

The Big Science Tour will be focused on experiments in more ways than one: This will be a logistical experiment for Cosmic Log as well. We're not exactly sure what capabilities we'll have on the road - so you may see video and still pictures, you may see text, you may even see nothing at all until we get back home. Bear with us (that is, MSNBC colleague Colin Hicks and I), and wish us good fortune on our pilgrimage.