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Smashing Success As Hadron Collider Makes 'Physics History'

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Researchers at work in CERN's CMS experience control room in Meyrin on March 30.

Researchers at work in CERN's CMS experience control room in Meyrin on March 30.

It sounds like pure science fiction -- the Large Hadron Collider today successfully smashed together beams of proton particles travelling at close to the speed of light.

Excited scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) site near Geneva are talking of the possibility of finding new dimensions of space and time and discovering more about "dark energy" and "dark matter."

Today's start to real experimentation with CERN's Large Hadron Particle Collider is supposed to bring us previously undreamt-of knowledge of the origins of the universe, by simulating in miniature the "Big Bang" that is held to be the act of creation.

Some of the citizens of the staid city of Geneva are worried by such extravagant talk, especially references by skeptics to creating black holes, even if these would be subatomic in size. After all, black holes in space are believed to be collapsed stars with such a force of gravity that they can suck in other planets.

The last thing the Genevois want is for their city to be dragged into a hole along the Swiss-French border, below which the Hadron has its 27-kilometer-long particle-acceleration tunnel. CERN dismisses such talk as unfounded.

'Needles Hitting Head-On'

Today its attention was taken up by the effort to bring two particle beams into head-on collision with each other. The two beams have been sped up in recent days till now they are travelling at nearly the speed of light. Their energy level is 3.5 trillion electron volts, the highest level ever achieved.

The magnet core of the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.
The difficult part was to get the beams to crash into one another. CERN's particles director, Steve Myers, says it's like trying to line up two needles fired from opposite sides of the Atlantic "and getting them to hit head-on halfway."

Initial attempts this morning to bring the beams into collision failed, and one of the beams was reportedly lost. But at the third attempt, collision was successfully achieved.

Afterwards, CERN research director Sergio Bertolucci, speaking in a video conference from Tokyo, said, "The most exciting thing is that we are just mapping the unknown and so the most striking things will be the unexpected things that we might find there."

Oliver Buchmueller, one of the key scientists on the project, told Reuters that this was a major breakthrough. "We have opened a new territory for physics," he said.

CERN Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer says a door is being opened to a new physics, "to a new period of discovery in the history of mankind."

Finding The Building Blocks

The point of the exercise is to cause explosions that recreate conditions nanoseconds after the Big Bang estimated to have taken place 13.7 billion years ago. Scientists hope it will show the existence of a theorized particle called Higg's boson, which is thought to give mass to other particles, and so is a building block of the universe.

They also hope to learn more about dark matter, which is thought to comprise a quarter of the universe. Most of the rest is dark energy, which is also being studied. Visible matter is held to comprise only a few percent of the universe.

CERN officials warn that it may take days to achieve a collision, and months of analytical work to assess the results. But Italian particle scientist Fabiola Gianotti told a news conference in Geneva that today’s achievement crowns 20 years of effort.

"This first collision at 7 TeV [tera-electron volts] for me marks at the same time an arrival point and a starting point," she said. "It is the end of 20 years of huge efforts by this worldwide scientific community to build an accelerator and detectors of unprecedented complexity, of I would say unprecedented size, performance, and technology, and at the same time [it] is the beginning of a fantastic era of psychics exploration."

Today's start-up troubles are a reminder of how difficult the machine is to operate. It recalls the months of repair work that had to be done on the collider after a September 2008 failure of a simple component disabled it only nine days after it was unveiled.

with agency reports

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