CERN scientists ramp up to restart collider
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, nagged by overruns and delays, may solve a few mysteries – and pose many more – when it restarts on Feb. 15 and ramps up to unprecedented levels of speed.
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CERN was criticized for cost overruns during the construction of its crown jewel, the $4.5 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Since its completion, technical delays have prevented the LHC from doing what it was designed to do: create high-energy collisions among tiny particles to help physicists answer some of the deepest remaining mysteries about the universe.
In September 2008, the collider ran for only a few days before it had to be shut down for major repairs. In November 2009, the 17-mile loop deep beneath the Swiss Alps was restarted and scientists recorded collisions at the highest energy levels humans had yet achieved. It was then shut down for winter.
Now, Dr. Myers is eyeing the payoff for a 15-year project dubbed the single most expensive scientific experiment in history.
On Feb. 15, the collider will start up again. Soon thereafter, it will start producing scientific data for the first time. This year, the plan is to ramp up the collider to unprecedented levels of speed in order to test traditional physics theories. If all goes well, Myers expects the LHC to run at full energy – accelerating particles to nearly the speed of light – in 2011.
The year-end run for the collider went more smoothly than many expected. But, says Myers, "For us, it's still just scratching the surface."
"From a purely scientific point of view, new results are months away," adds Thomas LeCompte, physics coordinator for ATLAS, one of two cathedral-scale detectors along the LHC's 17-mile circumference.
Energy levels of 13.8 billion years ago
Bringing the LHC to the eve of delivering its first scientific results has been a bit like tending a newborn child, Dr. LeCompte says. When one arrives, "it takes a lot of effort, makes a lot of noise, and doesn't produce much. But there's potential there, and everybody's really excited."
The excitement stems from the LHC's mission – to probe matter at energy levels thought to have existed just after the big bang some 13.8 billion years ago. At LHC energies, the universe was only a 10-billionth of a second old and unimaginably hot.
The collider aims to create those energies by accelerating two beams of protons in opposite directions to 99.9 percent of the speed of light. Researchers then steer the beams into head-on collisions. Detectors track the debris the collisions generate. High-powered supercomputers pick through the debris trails in hopes of spotting the signature of the hypothesized particle that imparts mass to matter, the Higgs Boson. They will also look for particles that make up so-called dark matter (the vast majority of matter in the universe), and particles that may hint at the presence of other dimensions beyond the four we can sense.
"Dark matter" was given its name because it rarely interacts with ordinary matter. Learning more about it may open the door to more mysteries.