Tuesday, September 9, 2008

It's Large Hadron Collider day!

On Wednesday, the LHC outside of Geneva, Switzerland goes live. It’s the biggest particle accelerator (or “atom smasher”) ever built and scientists hope it will teach them about the conditions immediately following the big bang.

Inside the 17 mile underground tunnel, giant magnets will accelerate protons up to 99.99999% of the speed of light. When they collide, they will generate concentrations of energy similar to those that existed during the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

On a tiny scale then, scientists hope to recreate whatever kinds of primordial forces, energy and matter existed 14 billion years ago before the universe cooled down.

It is hoped that we can confirm the existence of the mysterious Higgs boson, a particle thought to endow all other particles with mass. (I know. Me neither.) But if we don’t find it, some serious work is going to have to be done on the standard model of physics.

We may also learn more about dark energy and dark matter. This is the stuff that makes up 94% of our universe and we have no idea what it is or how it behaves. All we know is that its accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Think of that. 94% of the stuff in the universe is a total effing mystery. Until recently, we didn’t even think to think of it!

What you can be certain about is that the universe is not going to evaporate once the collider gets turned on.

In fact the LHC may very well produce tiny little black holes that wink in and out of existence. That freaky possibility is very real because they will be cramming a whole lot of energy into a very small space and Einstein showed that it is energy and not mass that governs gravitational attraction for moving particles. So when two particles go racing past each other at extremely high energy levels…maybe they create a black hole.

But if it is possible for these black holes to be created inside the LHC, then hundreds of black holes must be produced every single day due to high-energy cosmic rays bombarding the earth.

So one of two things will happen. Either black holes will not be produced at all or they will decay very quickly. Either way, we’ll all be around on Thursday to talk about it.

(In fact, yesterday Stephen Hawking weighed in on the subject and reassures:

"The LHC is absolutely safe. If the collisions in the LHC produced a micro black hole - and this is unlikely - it would just evaporate away again, producing a correctoristic pattern of particles,"
There now. Nothing to worry about, just a correctoristic pattern of particles. Interestingly, Hawking also said that he has placed a $100 bet that scientists will not find the Higgs boson.)

It’s likely to be months or even years before the experiments at the LHC produce useful knowledge and understanding. What they hope to achieve are extremely rare events – maybe one collision in a billion. But it’s also likely that we will reshape our thinking about the most fundamental questions in physics.

It’s a cool thing…to be alive and know that we are stretching mankind’s understanding of the universe. That we are probing mysteries that were absolutely unknowable until now.

Our picture of the universe is about to come into a slightly sharper focus. What a human achievement!

If this subject is of any interest to you at all, you might check out these links to learn more:

5 Part BBC Series on the LHC

Brian Cox talk at TED

1 comment:

Arkay said...

Should I tell them that I found a black hole swirling around near my desk today?
I lost my pencil, and I lost some time.