Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Atom smasher catches 1st high-energy collisions (from Yahoo! News)

Its a big day in the world of subatomic physics. CERN's Large Hadron Collider, located in Geneva, Switzerland, had its first successful collision. This marks the first major functioning milestone for the reactor, the successful end of a long and interesting journey rife with enough political intrigue and technical miracles to fill a season of The West Wing and Star Trek.

The mere existence of the LHC is remarkable in itself. At a cost of about $9 billion (the same amount as the largest check ever written), its the most expensive scientific experiment in history. It's also, naturally, the largest particle accelerator ever built - a huge metal doughnut 17 miles around, kept at a vacuum so powerful that there is actually more air in interplanetary space than there is within the LHC.

All 9300 of its superconducting magnets are kept at a temperature colder than outer space, while the energies of the collisions produce temperatures 100,000 times that of the core of the Sun.

The initial test collision accelerated protons to an energy of 1.18 TeV (1.18 trillion electron volts), edging out the previous record of 0.98 TeV. 1 TeV is about the energy of a mosquito flying - but all packed down into the size of a proton. When fully charged, the LHC can achieve a remarkable collision energy of 14 TeV - allowing scientists for the first time to recreate the conditions jsut moments after the Big Bang.

One thing scientists are hoping to discover is the Higgs Boson, an elusive little subatomic particle first predicted in the 1960s - the particle that gives things mass. The physicists at the LHC hope, to oversimply it, to smash together protons so hard that they knock the very mass out of them.

There still remains several obstacles for the scientists of CERN to overcome before they can achieve that goal. The technical precision needed to handle the unfathomable energies of the LHC means that they have zero room for error or variance, and the technology has already failed several times, even at "low" energies. Some people even worried that the massive energies of the collisions would create tiny black holes (dont worry, even the LHC doesnt nearly approach the energies you'd need to crunch a proton down THAT much). But for now, we can celebrate a success in one of the latest great undertakings of Big Science.

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