LHC Powers Up, Earth Still Here.

Yesterday marked a huge achievement for CERN and the team working on the Large Hadron Collider. After almost a year of delays after a catastrophic incident that damaged 2 sectors and caused 6 tons of helium to be lost they have successfully circulated 2 beams around the LHC. This of course let them test the entire reason they built the thing in the first place, smashing things together:

Geneva, 23 November 2009. Today the LHC circulated two beams simultaneously for the first time, allowing the operators to test the synchronization of the beams and giving the experiments their first chance to look for proton-proton collisions. With just one bunch of particles circulating in each direction, the beams can be made to cross in up to two places in the ring. From early in the afternoon, the beams were made to cross at points 1 and 5, home to the ATLAS and CMS detectors, both of which were on the look out for collisions. Later, beams crossed at points 2 and 8, ALICE and LHCb.

“It’s a great achievement to have come this far in so short a time,” said CERN1Director General Rolf Heuer. “But we need to keep a sense of perspective – there’s still much to do before we can start the LHC physics programme.”

Now we all know the hype around the LHC and how it has the “potential” to create a black hole that will destroy the earth. Whilst its been debunked many times over I’d just like to re-iterate it here, we’re not in any danger from the LHC or the particles it may create. Even though the energy in these collisions seems huge it is in fact quite small, about that of clapping your hands or a flying mosquito, concentrated into a very tiny space. Even if a black hole were to be created it would either evaporate almost instantly due to hawking radition or blaze through the earth where it would then take about 10 octillion (that’s a 1 followed by 28 zeros) to consume the entire earth. I’d be worried about the universe spontaneously collapsing in on itself than a small black hole created by the LHC consuming the earth.

So many people know what the LHC is but not what it was designed for. It does have several goals listed although there’s really only one that gets me all giddy:

  • Is the Higgs mechanism for generating elementary particle masses via electroweak symmetry breaking indeed realised in nature? It is anticipated that the collider will either demonstrate or rule out the existence of the elusive Higgs boson(s), completing the Standard Model.
  • Is supersymmetry, an extension of the Standard Model and Poincaré symmetry, realised in nature, implying that all known particles have supersymmetric partners? These may clear up the mystery of dark matter.
  • Are there extra dimensions, as predicted by various models inspired by string theory, and can we detect them?

The Higgs-Boson is an elusive beast as its the only particle in the standard model that has only been inferred theoretically, it has never been observed. Its discovery would round out the model and serve as a solid basis for the holy grail of physics, a theory for everything. Although this would be all well and good (and really, it is to be expected that we will see a Higgs-Boson) it would probably be more significant if the exact opposite happened. The greatest moments in science have stemmed from carefully prepared experiments behaving in ways that no one predicted, challenging our current thinking and forcing us to look back at our previous work. Whilst I will sing the LHCs praises from the rooftops should they find the Higgs-Boson you can be sure that I’ll be cackling with a mad sense of glee if they prove it does not exist.

While we’re still a ways off from doing real hard science with the LHC it’s great to see them hitting such a significant milestone. It’s hard to believe that the project, which has been going for over 15 years, is on the cusp of performing some of the most radical science to date. Really its a testament to what humanity is capable of and how far we’re willing to go just to satisfy our curiosity.

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