CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is warming up!
The most powerful particle accelerator ever built, it promises real breakthoughs in our understanding of our universe.
Although modern mathematical physics is amazingly flashy and theoretical, at root it is – of course – an observational science. We observe nature, and then come up with theories to explain what we see. The problem is, as medium-sized animals stuck on a temperate planet, we are severely limited in the types of observation we can make. No matter how clever we are, our theories have to be extrapolated from environments accessible to us to the rest of reality, much of which looks utterly different. There our ideas may stand or fall, but how do we know?
That’s why, whenever new technology unveils a side to the world which was previously hidden, it’s an exciting time: from the first microscopes prompting the discovery of cells, to the Hubble telescope zeroing in on the age of the universe.
How particles behave at very, very high energies (14 TeV) is something we have not yet been able to see directly. And it’s crucial: these were the conditions at the universe’s birth. This is what the LHC will open up, by whizzing protons round the 27 km loop, smashing them into each other at 300 km/s, and monitoring the fall-out.
There are several predictions made by theories of physics which will now be seriously tested for the first time. Particularly tantalizing is the Higgs Boson: a large particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model, but never seen. If found, it wouldn’t just be an important discovery on its own terms, it would be huge evidence for the Standard Model, and so a step towards a Theory of Everything.
Jim Pivarski at The Everything Seminar blog is involved as a physicist working on muons. He’s running a series updates on progress. At the moment, they’re testing it out by firing a few protons about, and the first proper collisions are rumoured to be scheduled for October. So, watch that space.
Meanwhile, here are some awesome pictures of the awesome machine.