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Wed Sep 10, 2008 10:52 am Reply with quote
cern hadron collider, particle accelerator mini-black holes
The world's biggest experiment begins
Scientists today "switched on" the most powerful particle accelerator ever built in an attempt to answer some of the biggest unanswered questions in physics.
And the fact that you're reading this proves the doomsayers wrong. The 'collider' is up and running - and there's no giant Black Hole, so far.
Despite some "small electrical problems" overnight, the £5 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was switched on at 8.39am BST after a slight delay. As experiments build, the LHC will smash protons into each other at energies up to seven times greater than any achieved before.
No one knows precisely what will come tumbling out of the primordial soup of disintegrating protons, but the scientists have dismissed suggestions that the experiment could somehow cause the end of the world.
The LHC could help scientists explain mass, gravity, mysterious "dark matter" and why the universe looks the way it does.
It could also produce the first evidence of extra spatial dimensions and even create mini-black holes that blink in and out of existence in a fraction of a second.
The LHC, a colossal machine housed in a 27 kilometre (17 mile) tunnel under 100 metres of rock, straddles the borders of Switzerland and France between Lake Geneva and the Jura mountains.
Beams of protons will be accelerated in opposite directions through the ring-shaped tunnel, which is supercooled to just 1.9 degrees above absolute zero (minus 271C), the lowest temperature allowed by nature.
Reaching velocities of 99.99 per cent of the speed of light, each beam will pack as much energy as a Eurostar train travelling at 150 kilometres per hour.
The particles will be brought together in four huge "detectors" placed along the ring. Each detector is like a giant microscope, designed to probe deeper into the heart of matter than has ever been possible before.
Concerns have been voiced - in particular by German chemist Professor Otto Rossler - that black holes created by the LHC will grow uncontrollably and "eat the planet from the inside".
But those involved in the project insist they have reviewed all the evidence and concluded that it poses no risk to the universe.
Particle physicist Dr James Gillies, a spokesman for the LHC, said: "We have received a lot of worried calls from people about it.
"There's nothing to worry about, the LHC is absolutely safe because we have observed nature doing the same things the LHC will do. "Protons regularly collide in the earth's upper atmosphere without creating black holes. "What we are looking at is a global community representing 10,000 people working in 500 universities in 80 countries, none of whom has the slightest worry about risks of this kind.
"Then we have a retired German chemist who has never published a paper in this field in his life, who has come up with this theory. "We are very excited about the project. We hope to learn more about this wonderful universe of ours."
The eyes of the world were on LHC project leader Dr Lyndon Evans, from Aberdare in south Wales, in the tense minutes before the machine was "switched on".
Looking relaxed in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, Dr Evans counted down the last few seconds before the first beam of protons was put into the LHC.
"Five, four, three, two, one, zero - nothing," he joked before a blip appeared on a computer monitor signalling that the long years of hard work had paid off and the machine was working.
Dr Evans, whose father was a coalminer, said: "This is really the biggest and most complex scientific project ever undertaken, and you cannot do a thing like this without engineers and applied scientists of very top quality."
Skills Secretary John Denham hailed the launch of the LHC today as an "extraordinary moment".
Noting that the project had taken two decades to come to fruition, he joked: "My lab technique used to be bad but I used to get set up quicker than that."
Mr Denham said theoretical research like this often produced practical benefits but said this was not the only concern of the Government in providing funding.
He said: "We do this fundamentally because we need to know. We need to know as human beings because we have a curiosity, an intellectual excitement."
Turning on the LHC was nothing like as simple is flipping a switch.
A chain of smaller accelerators, built for earlier projects, were first used to speed up the proton beams to the point where they could be injected into the machine.
The start of the process involved a bottle of hydrogen gas no bigger than a fire extinguisher.
Hydrogen atoms were stripped of their electrons to produce streams of protons that are fed into accelerators of increasing size.
The last link in the chain before the LHC, the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS), is buried underground and covers a distance of seven kilometres.
Timing between the SPS and the LHC has to be accurate to within a fraction of a nanosecond.
Today's "switch on" involved transferring a beam from the SPS to the LHC so that it is circulating around the machine in a stable fashion.
The first particle collisions are likely to take place within a few weeks.
In some cases teams of more than 2,000 collaborating scientists will be sifting and analysing data from the machine.
Most will not be at the LHC's operating base at CERN, the European nuclear research organisation, in Geneva.
A revolutionary computer network called the "Grid" - the next step beyond the World Wide Web - will make it possible for scientists all over the world to share huge amounts of processing power and carry out much of the work on their PCs.
The cost of the LHC is mainly shared by CERN's 20 European member states, which include Britain. Six "observer" nations, including the US, Russia and Japan, make significant contributions.
CERN estimates the total cost of the project to be 10 billion Swiss francs, or £5 billion. The material cost alone is put at £2.6 billion.
Britain's direct contribution to the LHC each year is £34 million.