Scientists Start Biggest Physics ExperimentBy Reuters - | Posted 2008-09-10 Email Print
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Experiments using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the biggest and most complex machine ever made, could revamp modern physics and unlock secrets about the universe and its origins. The project has had to work hard to deny suggestions by some critics that the experiment could create tiny black holes of intense gravity that could suck in the whole planet.
GENEVA (Reuters) - International scientists celebrated the successful start of a huge particle-smashing machine on Wednesday aiming to recreate the conditions of the "Big Bang" that created the universe.
Experiments using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the biggest and most complex machine ever made, could revamp modern physics and unlock secrets about the universe and its origins.
The project has had to work hard to deny suggestions by some critics that the experiment could create tiny black holes of intense gravity that could suck in the whole planet.
Such fears, fanned by doomsday writers, have spurred huge interest in particle physics before the machine's start-up. Leading scientists have dismissed such concerns as "nonsense."
The debut of the machine that cost 10 billion Swiss francs ($9 billion) registered as a blip on a control room screen at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, at about 9:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m. EDT).
"We've got a beam on the LHC," project leader Lyn Evans told his colleagues, who burst into applause at the news.
The physicists and technicians huddled in the control room cheered loudly again an hour later when the particle beam completed a clockwise trajectory of the accelerator, successfully completing the machine's first major task.
Eventually, the scientists want to send beams in both directions to create tiny collisions at nearly the speed of light, an attempt to recreate on a miniature scale the heat and energy of the Big Bang, a concept of the origin of the universe that dominates scientific thinking.
The Big Bang is thought to have occurred 15 billion years ago when an unimaginably dense and hot object the size of a small coin exploded in a void, spewing out matter that expanded rapidly to create stars, planets and eventually life on Earth.
Problems with the LHC's magnets caused its temperature -- which is kept at minus 271.3 degrees Celsius (minus 456.3 degrees Fahrenheit) -- to fluctuate slightly, delaying efforts to send a particle beam in the counter-clockwise direction. The beam started its progression and then was halted.
"This is a hiccup, not a major thing," Rudiger Schmidt, CERN's head of hardware commissioning, told reporters, adding the second rotation should be completed on Wednesday afternoon.
Evans, who wore jeans and running shoes to the start-up, declined to say when those high-energy clashes would begin.
"I don't know how long it will take," he said. "I think what has happened this morning bodes very well that it will go quickly ... This is a machine of enormous complexity. Things can go wrong at any time. But this morning we had a great start."
Once the particle-smashing experiment gets to full speed, data measuring the location of particles to a few millionths of a meter, and the passage of time to billionths of a second, will show how the particles come together, fly apart, or dissolve.
It is in these conditions that scientists hope to find fairly quickly a theoretical particle known as the Higgs Boson, named after Scottish scientist Peter Higgs who first proposed it in 1964, as the answer to the mystery of how matter gains mass.
Without mass, the stars and planets in the universe could never have taken shape in the eons after the Big Bang, and life could never have begun -- on Earth or, if it exists as many cosmologists believe, on other worlds either.
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