September 5, 2008
Is the World About to Go Out With a Bang?
By Rebecca McQuillan reports
LOOK outside your window. Is it a beautiful day? Is it raining again? If so, welcome it, go out now in your socks and run about in it. Kiss a stranger. Make the most of every minute, because the doomsayers predict that we might not be here at Christmas.
Nevertheless, the flurry of recent talk about whether the planet is about to disappear down the cosmic plughole has provided a last- minute buzz around what is the most hotly anticipated scientific event of the new millennium. Scientists hope the Big Bang Experiment will help answer some of the most profound questions they have.
WHAT IS IT?
. It's an experiment designed to recreate the conditions that existed a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, 14 billion years ago. It will be done by smashing protons together at near-light speed. Dr Stephan Eisenhardt, a particle physicist at Edinburgh University, who is working on the project investigating antimatter, says: "We are starting a 10-year expedition into an unknown domain of physics."
HOW WILL THEY DO IT?
. By using a remarkable instrument called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), not only the most powerful particle collider but the biggest scientific instrument in the world. It's 27km long and in a location to make a Bond villain weep with envy, far below ground on the Franco-Swiss border.
The accelerator itself is a long circular tunnel containing a vacuum, dubbed "the emptiest space in the solar system", and the particles will be guided between magnets. There will be two beams of 100 billion protons that will crash into one another 40 million times a second.
The machine has six detectors for monitoring what's going on, each one designed to study something different - the Atlas detector alone is half the size of Notre Dame cathedral. The experiment is predicted to generate a "data avalanche" of more than 15 million gigabytes a year, requiring a superfast internet network that is 10,000 times faster than ordinary broadband. The enormous magnets have to be cooled to almost absolute zero - minus 271 degrees Celsius - making it, in Dr Eisenhardt's words, "the biggest fridge on earth".
WHAT MIGHT THEY DISCOVER?
. As Dr Eisenhardt puts it, physicists are seeking proof of the "known unknowns" to fill the gaps in current theories and also the "unknown unknowns" - information they haven't even predicted yet. Four main experiments have been set up and two smaller ones. The so- called Atlas detector as well as CMS, which use different magnet designs, are seeking proof of a famous known unknown: the Higgs boson, also known as the God particle, named after Prof Peter Higgs, emeritus professor at Edinburgh University.
His theory, first expounded in 1964, explained a great mystery of physics: why, when sub atomic particles are weightless, do things made of atoms, such as books, humans and planets, have mass? He suggested that subatomic particles were indeed weightless, until they came within the range of a particular type of field. The field, in keeping with theory, would have corresponding particles, popularly known as Higgs bosons.
Two Belgian physicists, Robert Brout and Francois Englert, reached a similar conclusion at the same time. The Higgs boson is part of the jigsaw that makes up the so-called Standard Model, a theory for explaining the universe that has been successfully tested by physicists over decades.
For 40 years, the race has been on to prove the God particle's existence, so elusive that some have renamed it the "goddamn particle". Still, not everyone is so sure it will be found, including Prof Stephen Hawking. Prof Higgs himself, now 78, has said of the forthcoming experiment: "If I'm wrong, I'll be rather sad." If he's right, he will win the Nobel prize.
WHAT OTHER THINGS?
. Atlas and CMS will also try to pin down the nature of dark matter, which is thought to make up 90per cent of the universe.
Besides them, there are two other big detectors, LHCb and ALICE, and two smaller ones, Totem and LHCf. LHCb will try to find out what happened to the missing antimatter that eroded at the beginning of time. ALICE will collide the nucleii of lead, instead of protons, creating temperatures that are 100,000 times hotter than the sun's centre with the aim of "melting" protons and neutrons into quarks and gluons, creating a "plasma" like that which existed just after the Big Bang. Scientists will watch to see how it produces recognisable matter. LHCf will try to simulate cosmic rays, which may be a factor in climate change, while Totem will measure protons.
SO WHO'S WORRIED ABOUT BLACK HOLES?
. In March, a lawsuit was filed in Hawaii by two concerned citizens seeking to prevent the LHC operating pending further safety reports. As well as suggesting that a tiny black hole could grow and devour the Earth, they feared that a body called a Strangelet could be emitted, turning Earth into shrunken "strange matter". Three CERN safety reports have concluded the collider is safe. In fact, there is doubt that even tiny black holes will be produced. A further bid to prevent the switch-on was rejected by the European Court of Human Rights last Friday, though the court is still to rule on a claim that the collider violates the right to life.
Dr Eisenhardt says there is "no risk whatsoever". "When these allegations were raised, our own people reassessed it again. They shed light on it from every angle and we can confirm there is no risk. The best way to look at it is: our accelerator has a certain limit for how energetically we can smash particles together. In the outer atmosphere of the Earth, we have intergalactic particles hitting the atmosphere that are more energetic than anything we can produce. We know that they create mini black holes that decay into radiation - if they didn't, we wouldn't exist."
ANY OTHER CONSEQUENCES?
. Two Russian scientists wrote in the New Scientist that the experiment could possibly create "wormholes", tunnels in space-time that could, theoretically, enable time travel. They would be so teeny that only subatomic particles could pass through - and as time travel is only possible from the date at which the first time machine is invented, it would only open a gateway to the future, not the past, making 2008 "year zero".
Many scientists, it must be said, are very sceptical.
COULD IT HELP GENERATE ENERGY IN NEW WAYS?
. Not directly, but the development of the refridgeration technology and the magnets could be useful to international nuclear fusion project, ITER. We're still 30 to 50 years away from attempting to produce electricity this way because it's highly complicated and has to be very carefully confined.
IS LHC A EUROPEAN VENTURE?
. It's dominated by Europe, but it's an effort of international cooperation. A total of 111 countries have been involved in the design, building, testing of equipment and as analysts. More than 20, mainly European, countries contributed to the GBP4.4bn cost of the LHC, but the US also gave GBP250m after plans for its even bigger Superconducting Supercollider were cancelled by Congress. Some 2500 physicists from 37 countries are working on Atlas and a similar number on CMS. LCHb has 600 scientists from 44 countries.
Glasgow and Edinburgh universities are closely involved, working on ATLAS and LHCb. One key British figure is Professor Brian Cox of Manchester University, who got his first-class degree in physics in the mid-1990s at the same time as being keyboard player with D: Ream. He will join Andrew Marr in the LHC control room on Wednesday for a special edition of the Today programme.
Incidentally, TV coverage of the start-up will be made available through Eurovision - the TV company now almost exclusively known for that other great panEuropean enterprise, the Eurovision Song Contest.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WEEK?
. The first proton beams will be fired and once they're circulating, will be brought into collision and accelerated.
BBC Radio 4 will broadcast live from CERN on September 10. The Big Bang Day starts in the LHC control room at 8.30am and continues through the day.
Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.
(c) 2008 Herald, The; Glasgow (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.