World's Largest Atom Smasher Breaks Record

Scientists are celebrating after the Large Hadron Collider started making atomic particles head-on at record-breaking energies. The $10 billion experiment straddles the Swiss-French border and has been 15 years in the making. Its job is to probe some of the most basic questions about our universe.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's great excitement today among scientists in Europe who've started up the world's largest atom smasher.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

MONTAGNE: Scientists cheered, as you can hear, and toasted with champagne after the Large Hadron Collider started making atomic particles collide head-on at record-breaking energies. The $10 billion experiment straddles the Swiss-French border and has been 15 years in the making, and now it's producing its first scientific results.

Its job is to probe some of the most basic questions about our universe. Joining us to talk about that this morning and the events is NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So what has been going on at this experiment near Geneva?

HARRIS: Well, you got a little sense of the excitement from that brief cheer, but it's been a wonderful morning there. They have been trying to get this machine operating, and they finally did. The object is to have two beams of atomic particles traveling in a magnetic field, a sort of a 17-mile-long loop. One beam goes clockwise, the other one goes counterclockwise. There are, like, 10 billion particles going in each direction. And what's happening now is they're colliding, and they're creating showers of new particles. And the concept of having, you know, atomic particles collide in these circular things is not a new idea, but the collision energies in this case are completely off the charts. They're at seven teva electron volts. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: They are at seven teraelectron volts.]

MONTAGNE: Seven teva? Well, Richard, tell us what that means, exactly.

HARRIS: Well, a teva electron volt is a measure of energy. And at first glance, it doesn't seem like it's all that much, because a mosquito uses about one teva electron volt when it's flying. That's about the energy required for a mosquito to fly. But the trick is if you take all that energy and you pack it into a tiny, tiny subatomic space, that's actually then what we're - what's happening here, and you get a huge amount of energy in a small space, in that sense. And so it's enough to blow atomic particles to bits.

MONTAGNE: And what are the scientists hoping to learn?

HARRIS: Well, today, they're just demonstrating that the machine actually will perform, and they're already gathering data. But ultimately, what they hope to do is answer some of the big, big questions about the universe. For example, we know that only about four percent of the matter in the universe is actually visible. And the rest, according to theory, is a mix of so-called dark matter and something else called dark energy.

Now, if you look at the subatomic debris from these collisions, they're hoping that they can help sort out what those sources of energy are, and matter are, that we can't see. And the ultimate prize would be to find a particle called the Higgs Boson. It's the linchpin of modern physics. It's been predicted by a theory called the Standard Model. And some people call it the God particle -maybe a little bit over the top, but, you know, it really is critical, because it could help explain how the energy from the Big Bang turned into mass. And ultimately, you know, we're made of mass. So we care about that.

MONTAGNE: Are they likely to find the Higgs particle today?

HARRIS: Probably not today. In fact, the current accelerator is running about half its ultimate capacity. And it will run like this for a couple of years, then they'll turn it off and they'll do a bunch of upgrades, and they'll fire it up again in 2013 or so. And then, even then it'll probably have to run for another year or so before it produces enough Higgs Bosons for actual study - that is, if it produces any at all. That's the big question.

MONTAGNE: Now, some people have been worried that the collider could be dangerous, and sort of the idea is it might end up creating black holes. Is there a reason to be worried?

HARRIS: Well, collisions at these energies do happen elsewhere in the universe, because cosmic rays pack this kind of energy. So there's all sorts of stuff like this going on in the universe, and we're still here. So that's good. There is a small chance that the collider will produce black holes. But if it does, the black holes will be extremely tiny, and they would only last for a fraction of a second. They would essentially evaporate. So physicists say there's essentially no chance that a black hole could start gobbling up the matter all around it. It's just too small.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

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Correction March 30, 2010

We incorrectly used the term "teva electron volt" in our story about the Large Hadron Collider. We should have used the term "teraelectron volt."

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