Man's efforts to understand the Big Bang - the primal explosion from which the universe was born - have been brought to a halt by a marital tiff.
More than 7,000 scientists and engineers work at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory outside Geneva, at an annual cost of £450m to the taxpayers of 18 countries. But last weekend, a Frenchman of Romanian origin went berserk and attacked the machine he had tended for 27 years.
After a dispute with his former wife, Nicolas Blazianu ripped out 1,300 electronic circuits from the main control room of Cern's atom smasher - known as the Proton Synchrotron - and hid them in the ceiling, under the floor, and behind walls.
The scientist then disappeared, later phoning Cern management to say he would tell them where the bits were - for 2 million French francs.
"On Monday morning we found that somebody had dismantled almost the entirety of the control system," Neil Calder, a Cern spokesman, said. "Several cubic metres of electronics had been removed." Cern staff have since recovered all the electronic modules but, according to Mr Calder, the documentation on them is incomplete and it will be difficult to put them together again.
Moreover, because Cern is a research facility, "this instrumentation has been growing organically over the past 20 years or so".
Mr Blazianu was a control room operator, so he had full access rights to the machine, shut down for maintenance at the time. Cern scientists will not know until the end of next month how long it will take them to repair the damage.
Although Mr Blazianu was divorced about six years ago, he and his former wife both work at Cern and it is believed there has been continuing friction. "I know him well, he's not a bad bloke at all," Mr Calder said. "But it's a killer for all the guys here. Seven thousand people come through the gates of Cern every day. It's been open for 40 years and this is the first time we have had anything like this."
Police in Bourg-en-Bresse, in south-east France, have arrested Mr Blazianu, 53, who will be charged with theft and attempted extortion.Reuse content