Large Hadron Collider to begin smashing atoms next month

Cern scientists prepare for next round of history-making smash-ups in massive underground laboratory


The Large Hadron Collider, a massive 'atom smasher' located in Switzerland and France, has restarted as scientists resume the search for dark matter.

A series of experiments conducted at Cern, near Geneva, could help scientists catch a glimpse of "new physics" and also cast doubt on the Big Bang theory.

Protons are now orbiting the laboratory's vast underground tunnels in both directions, the BBC reports. As early as next month, physicists will begin smashing atoms into one another at speeds just short of the speed of light.

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The latest work – the first major experiment since the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 – aims to detect miniature black holes which could reveal the existence of parallel universes. It could also lend weight to the theory of 'rainbow gravity' – a controversial hypothesis which suggests that the universe did not come about through a "Big Bang", but stretches back through time infinitely.

What is the Large Hadron Collider?

The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest particle accelerator. Built at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) near Geneva and housed within a 17-mile underground circular tunnel – three miles longer than the London Underground's Circle Line – it is designed to reproduce the incredibly high energies found in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, which is believed to have brought our universe into existence. Some believe that Cern's latest round of experiments could test and even disprove the Big Bang theory.

What has the LHC done so far?

In 2012, Cern scientists used the LHC to fire beams of protons (tiny subatomic particles) in opposite directions around the tunnel before making them collide at 99.9999991 per cent of the speed of light. The experiments worked, proving the existence of a Higgs boson and resulting in a shower of awards, including the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics, which was awarded jointly to Peter Higgs and his fellow physicist Francois Englebert.

What is the ultimate goal of the LHC?

"We simply want to understand what the world is made of, and how," said Jos Engelen, Cern's chief scientific officer. Over the past century, physicists have gone a long way towards identifying the basic building blocks of the universe. First came the discovery that each atom has a heavy nucleus, consisting of protons and neutrons (collectively known as hadrons), orbited by a matching number of light electrons. But these hadrons were found to be made up of yet smaller particles: quarks, glued together by gluons. In the 1970s, the "Standard Model", a sort of kits part for the subatomic world, was developed. It lists the categories of fundamental matter particles – quarks and leptons, each coming in six "flavours" – as well as things called bosons (some of which, such as gluons, carry the forces that bind other subatomic particles). The Standard Model has very successfully predicted subatomic interactions, but it has long been incomplete.

How can the Large Hadron Collider help?

Many discoveries concerning the building blocks of the universe have been made using devices which smash up atoms and examine the resulting subatomic debris. In 1932, the Cambridge scientists John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton first split the atom, using a particle accelerator to fire protons into lithium atoms, producing helium. Since then, bigger and better atom-smashers have confirmed the existence of a whole world of mysterious, and mysteriously-named particles, such as the W and Z boson, the charm quark and the top quark. But previous particle colliders were peashooters compared with the LHC.

What might the latest experiment find?

After scientists restart the LHC, they believe it may be possible to find miniature black holes, which could even reveal the existence of a parallel universe. And if the black holes are found at a certain energy, they could prove the notion of 'rainbow gravity', a controversial theory which suggests that there was no Big Bang, but rather that the universe stretches back in time infinitely. The theory attempts to reconcile Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the Daily Telegraph notes.

What else might the LHC discover?

Scientists don't really know, but many hope it might still help to discover a "jewel box" of new particles; to test a whole group of theories, like string theory and supersymmetry, that go beyond the Standard Model; to throw light on the mystery of "dark matter", which seems to make up most of the mass of the universe but is not visible; even, perhaps, to see evidence of further dimensions.

And the practical implications?

The main purpose of the LHC is knowledge for its own sake. On the other hand, as the world's premier blue-sky thinking laboratory, Cern produces a great many practical spinoffs. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while working there. Civil engineering and superconductor technologies have been pushed to new boundaries for the LHC; imaging techniques developed for the project are now used in hundreds of hospitals. Cern has also created the world's most powerful computer network, the "Grid", to process the staggering amount of data produced by the LHC. It uses the processing power of research institutes in 33 nations, and the technology is expected to be made publicly available, revolutionising computing in the process.

Isn't all this dangerous?

The search for mini black holes has fed fears that the LHC is a doomsday machine, creating black holes that could swallow up the entire Earth. Before the LHC was first switched on, two amateur physicists, Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho, sought a restraining order on the LHC in the US courts. Concerns have also been raised about "strangelets", notional objects made of quarks which could turn all matter into "strange matter", making the world vanish. These worries are regarded as coming from science’s lunatic fringe. Cern promises that any black holes will be small, fleeting and "benign", and that we are "safe from strangelet-initiated catastrophe".

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