Big Bang machine makes history

With record-breaking particle collision, scientists on the hunt for great mysteries of the universe

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider succeeded today in smashing two particle beams into each other at an energy level three and a half times greater than ever achieved before.

Today's record-breaking collision marks the beginning of intensive scientific research for the collider, which has suffered through expensive and time-consuming glitches since it first went online in September 2008 .

With the success of this high-energy collision, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which runs the collider, said they now can begin their long-anticipated hunt to answer some of the great mysteries of the universe - understanding dark matter and black holes and finding new dimensions.

"We've all been impressed with the way the [collider] has performed so far," said Guido Tonelli, a CERN spokesman, in a statement. "We'll address soon some of the major puzzles of modern physics, like the origin of mass, the grand unification of forces and the presence of abundant dark matter in the universe. I expect very exciting times in front of us."

On March 19, CERN scientists announced that the collider had broken a second energy record , accelerating proton beams to 3.5 teraelectronvolts (TeV), the top speed for an atom smasher machine. That came on the heels of the collider, which sits astride the Swiss/French border, setting the previous record by accelerating two protons at a speed of 1.18 TeV late last November.

Today, the collider went beyond accelerating beams and smashed two beams together that were individually accelerated to the 3.5 TeV level. It was a combined energy of 7 TeV.

"It's a great day to be a particle physicist," said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer, in a statement. "A lot of people have waited a long time for this moment, but their patience and dedication is starting to pay dividends."

Barring any mechanical trouble, physicists at CERN are hoping to run the collider for the next 18 to 24 months, looking for information on such things as the Higgs boson particle, otherwise known as the God particle. This elusive piece of matter is thought to be the answer to why objects have mass. Without this cornerstone of physics, many theories that serve as the underpinnings of human understanding of the universe evaporate.

So far, the Higgs bason particle remains a theory and CERN physicists are looking forward to investigating it. Today's collision is a forebear to the time when scientists will accelerate two particle beams toward each other at 99.9% of the speed of light.

Smashing the beams together creates showers of new particles that should re-create conditions in the universe just moments after its conception.

The collider, which has been called "one of the great engineering milestones of mankind ," was built to explore the Big Bang theory, which holds that more than 13 billion years ago, an amazingly dense object the size of a coin expanded into the universe that we know now.

The collider has been plagued with problems, however. Shortly after the collider's first test run in September 2008, scientists running the machine disclosed that a faulty electrical connection had knocked it offline . Fixes and the addition of safeguards kept the collider offline until this past November.

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld (US)
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