Tags: atom | smasher | LHC

World's Biggest Atom Smasher to Start Up

Sunday, 07 Sep 2008 02:09 PM

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After more than 30 years of planning, 14 years of building and $10 billion later, the Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest atom smasher, is due to start up on September 10. Scientists predict collisions of sub-atomic particles produced by the LHC will allow them to get closer than ever before to answering questions about the origins of the universe.

LHC Project Leader, Lyn Evans, has been coddling this colossal machine from the start.

"It has been 14 years. I think this is really a very long time for any scientific project and, quite frankly, I'm glad to see the end," Evans told the Voice of America.

The end is actually the beginning. But, as Evans explains, the start of this grand voyage into the unknown will not begin by pulling a switch to get the machine working for the first time.

"There is not a big red button as many people think, that the thing switches on and results come spewing out," added Evans. "It is a complex operation and we start by trying to get a beam just to go around the ring once. And, if we can achieve that on the first day, I will be extremely happy."

The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, is the world's most powerful particle accelerator. The giant machine could revolutionize our understanding of the universe by recreating the conditions which were present less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang.

The gigantic ring-shaped device is housed in a 27-kilometer tunnel, which straddles the Swiss-French border near Geneva.

The collider has massive detectors that fill cathedral-sized rooms at intervals along the ring. Some 6,000 super-conducting magnets guide the beams. Evans says 50,000 tons of equipment will have to be cooled down to temperatures that are colder than that of outer space.

He says protons are fed directly into the LHC ring via two injection lines, one for each beam. He says the first attempt to circulate two proton beams all the way around the ring will occur on September 10.

"When these beams collide, then, of course when two particles collide, then they produce energy, which can convert itself into mass and if you got high energy than you can produce heavy objects," said Evans.

It will take a couple of months to bring collisions up to the desired energy. When the LHC gets up to speed, the accelerated protons will travel with nearly the speed of light. The machine will produce about 800 million proton-proton collisions every second.

CERN theoretical physicist, John Ellis tells VOA people should think of the LHC as the world's most fantastic microscope. He says the LHC will be able to look ten times deeper inside the structure of matter than any accelerator or microscope that has been built before.

"And, you should also think of it as being the world's most fantastic telescope because it recreates in some sense the conditions that occurred very early in the history of the Big Bang," said Ellis. "Not right back at the beginning, but a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. So, in addition to addressing really fundamental questions about the structure of matter, what it is made of, what holds it together, it is also going, I think give us insights into how the universe came to be the way that it is today."

Physicists believe the LHC will lead to the discovery of a new particle called the Higgs Boson, named after the British physicist Peter Higgs. The Higgs is often referred to as the missing link in the history of particle physics. It is thought to hold the answer to why sub-atomic particles have weight or mass.

Ellis says the LHC is capable of unlocking other issues of equal or greater scientific interest. He says his particular passion is to probe Dark Matter.

"Astronomers and cosmologists tell us that something like 80 percent of the matter in the universe is invisible, the so-called Dark Matter that nobody has ever seen. We know it is there because it exerts gravitational forces, but it does not shine, so presumably it is not made of the same stuff as regular matter," added Ellis. "To my mind it is amazing that here we are in the 21st century and we still do not know what most of the stuff in the universe is made of."

As CERN celebrates its achievement, some people are predicting the LHC will create a mammoth black hole that will swallow up the earth. Several lawsuits have been filed to stop the LHC from starting up.

Physicists call these doomsday scenarios ridiculous. They say cosmic rays have been bombarding the earth and triggering collisions similar to those planned for the collider, since the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.

And, Physicists John Ellis and Lyn Evans note, so far, the earth has survived.

"There is absolutely no evidence that black holes are eating up planets thanks to these cosmic ray collisions. No black hole will swallow up the earth," continued Ellis.

"I do not expect to be swallowed up by," said Evans. "I think nobody in their right mind expects to be swallowed up by hypothetical black holes which are created in the LHC."

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