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A Primer on the Great Proton Smashup

R.O. Blechman

Published: April 2, 2010

Yes, the collider finally crashed subatomic particles into one another last week, but why, exactly, is that important? Here is a primer on the collider – with just enough information, hopefully, to impress guests at your next cocktail party.

Let’s be basic. What does a particle physicist do?

Particle physicists have one trick that they do over and over again, which is to smash things together and watch what comes tumbling out.

What does it mean to say that the collider will allow physicists to go back to the Big Bang? Is the collider a time machine?

Physicists suspect that the laws of physics evolved as the universe cooled from billions or trillions of degrees in the first moments of the Big Bang to superfrigid temperatures today (3 degrees Kelvin) — the way water changes from steam to liquid to ice as temperatures decline. As the universe cooled, physicists suspect, everything became more complicated. Particles and forces once indistinguishable developed their own identities, the way Spanish, French and Italian diverged from the original Latin.

By crashing together subatomic particles — protons — physicists create little fireballs that revisit the conditions of these earlier times and see what might have gone on back then, sort of like the scientists in Jurassic Park reincarnating dinosaurs.

The collider, which is outside Geneva, is 17 miles around. Why is it so big?

Einstein taught us that energy and mass are equivalent. So, the more energy packed into a fireball, the more massive it becomes. The collider has to be big and powerful enough to pack tremendous amounts of energy into a proton.

Moreover, the faster the particles travel, the harder it is to bend their paths in a circle, so that they come back around and bang into each other. The collider is designed so that protons travel down the centers of powerful electromagnets that are the size of redwood trunks, which bend the particles’ paths into circles, creating a collision. Although the electromagnets are among the strongest ever built, they still can’t achieve a turning radius for the protons of less than 2.7 miles.

All in all, the bigger the accelerator, the bigger the crash, and the better chance of seeing what is on nature’s menu.

What are physicists hoping to see?

According to some theories, a whole list of items that haven’t been seen yet — with names like gluinos, photinos, squarks and winos — because we haven’t had enough energy to create a big enough collision.

Any one of these particles, if they exist, could constitute the clouds of dark matter, which, astronomers tell us, produce the gravity that holds galaxies and other cosmic structures together.

Another missing link of physics is a particle known as the Higgs boson, after Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, which imbues other particles with mass by creating a cosmic molasses that sticks to them and bulks them up as they travel along, not unlike the way an entourage forms around a rock star when they walk into a club.

Have scientists ever seen dark matter?

It’s invisible, but astronomers have deduced from their measurements of galactic motions that the visible elements of the cosmos, like galaxies, are embedded in huge clouds of it.

Will physicists see these gluinos, photinos, squarks and winos?

There is no guarantee that any will be discovered, which is what makes science fun, as well as nerve-racking.

So how much energy do you need to create these fireballs?

At the Large Hadron Collider, that energy is now 3.5 trillion electron volts per proton — about as much energy as a flea requires to do a pushup. That may not sound like much, but for a tiny proton, it is a lot of energy. It is the equivalent of a 200-pound man bulking up by 700,000 pounds.

What’s an electron volt?

An electron volt is the amount of energy an electron would gain passing from the negative to the positive side of a one-volt battery. It is the basic unit of energy and of mass preferred by physicists.

When protons collide, is there a big bang?

There is no sound. It’s not like a bomb exploding.

In previous trials, there was an actual explosion.

All that current is dangerous. During the testing of the collider in September 2008, the electrical connection between a pair of the giant magnets vaporized. There are thousands of such connections in the collider, many of which are now believed to be defective. As a result the collider can only run at half-power for the next two years.

Could the collider make a black hole and destroy the Earth?

The collider is not going to do anything that high-energy cosmic rays have not done repeatedly on Earth and elsewhere in the universe. There is no evidence that such collisions have created black holes or that, if they have, the black holes have caused any damage. According to even the most speculative string theory variations on black holes, the Large Hadron Collider is not strong enough to produce a black hole.

Too bad, because many physicists would dearly like to see one.

An earlier version of this article misstated that the Earth began to cool in the aftermath of the Big Bang.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 4, 2010, on page WK3 of the New York edition.


06/04/2010 Posted by | science | , , | Leave a comment