It’s one of the biggest and most complex scientific instruments ever made and it has not been without its glitches and breakdowns, but the Large Hadron Collider was all systems go this morning at CERN and has now set a record for the highest-energy particle collisions ever recorded – and it’s still going.
"It’s a great day to be a particle physicist," said CERN1 director general Rolf Heuer. "A lot of people have waited a long time for this moment, but their patience and dedication is starting to pay dividends."
What does this mean for physics?
Essentially, what is happening inside the Large Hadron Collider is that two beams of protons are being smashed into each other at speeds nearing lightspeed. This has been done before but not at such high energy – the LHC has previously reached 2.36 TeV (trillion electron volts) but today has seen 3.5 TeV after three attempts. There are now stable beams and the three detectors (Alice, CMS and Atlas) are taking data continuously.
On the cusp of new discoveries
The reason why science deems it necessary to hurl protons at each other at such high energy and speeds is because when these protons collide we see things that we have never seen before. This is big. We could discover new particles, forces and dimensions.
"With these record-shattering collision energies, the LHC experiments are propelled into a vast region to explore, and the hunt begins for dark matter, new forces, new dimensions and the Higgs boson," said ATLAS collaboration spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti.
"The fact that the experiments have published papers already on the basis of last year’s data bodes very well for this first physics run."
Imagine if you hurl two baseballs at each other: they can interact in two different ways by glancing off each other or smashing apart. When baseballs smash apart nothing of interest comes out but when protons open up the subatomic ingredients of life spill out (quarks, gluons) – or, technically speaking, the elementary particles inside subatomic particles.
The famous God Particle
The last time astoundingly high energy particle collisions occurred it was quite a busy time for the universe, what with it being the Big Bang, and all so particle physicists reckon that if they attempt to recreate this they will discover more about the origins of the universe and perhaps find the hypothetical Higgs boson or God Particle, which would be the missing jigsaw piece in a particular explanation of how the universe works.
Calling it the God Particle might be overstating it a tad: some scientists prefer to call it the Champagne bottle boson due to the shape of its potential when graphed out (and not because if its potential is unleashed it could take your eye out).
Adding a new page to the book of physics
So what happens now that the LHC has reached record levels? Well, we’ll have to wait and see because reams of data will have to be gathered, analysed and interpreted before anything definitive can be taken from these collisions.
Within 30 minutes to an hour, more than 50,000 events occur and the characteristic of these events will be measured. This is a totally new energy domain where no one has gone before, said one of the lead physicists in the Alice control room.
"We hope to write a new page in the books of physics," he added.
By Marie Boran
Photo: Inside the Large Hadron Collider