February 4, 2010

Scientists Hope LHC Will Answer Big Questions

A two-year continuous run through late 2011 will prove whether the "Big Bang" particle collider at CERN can shed light on the mystery of what gives mass to matter.

Scientists are hoping to find the elusive Higgs Boson particle they have been looking for during the long-term experiment, which involves the largest and most costly scientific machine set to be switched on later this month, James Gillies told Reuters.

"If it is there, we have a reasonable chance of seeing it," said Gillies, speaking of the particle that physicist Peter Higgs said 30 years ago would ultimately give understanding to scientists as to how matter came together to form the universe and everything therein.

He said that the 18-24 month experiment with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, would provide a huge amount of information.

If the mysterious Higgs Boson does not show itself, it does not necessarily mean that it does not exist. The first long operation will be followed by a year long break for preparations before being turned on again at the highest possible energy level.

"It may be that we require that intensity to capture it," Gilles explained.

The machine was originally turned on in September 2008, but was shut down after problems in the 16.78-mile tunnel that it runs through underground. The LHC primarily aims for the collision of particles traveling in opposite directions at high energy.

The LHC produces billions of collisions, each collision creating the conditions that existed only a fraction of a second after the "Big Bang" when the universe began 13.7 billion years ago. These collisions will produce data for around 10,000 scientists at CERN and across the globe to record and analyze.

The "Big Bang" explosion shot out the matter that ultimately formed stars, planets and life on Earth. However, the Higgs theory says this could only occur if something like the Boson brought matter together, giving it mass.

At the end of last year, the LHC achieved the highest level of energy ever, 2.36 tera-electron volts (TeV), during about a two month run while staging particle beam collisions in the tunnel.

Last week, CERN physicists, engineers and managers in Chamonix, France made the decision to implement the next long run with no winter break. According to Gillies, the collision energy would be gradually increased to 7 TeV when it got under way.

The collider will be shut down once again for up to 12 months toward the end of next year. This will enable engineers to prepare the tunnel and the huge amount of equipment there for collisions at 14 TeV in the following run, which will likely begin in 2013.


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