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Atom Smasher Sets New Record
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Atom Smasher Sets New Record

Science

Atom Smasher Sets New Record

Atom Smasher Sets New Record
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The world's largest atom smasher set a new record Tuesday. Physicists in Switzerland collided atomic particles at velocities close to the speed of light to create mini-versions of the Big Bang that gave birth to the universe.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Scientists took their first glimpse into a whole new realm of physics today. They fired up a powerful new particle accelerator - or atom smasher, if you prefer the colloquial term - that straddles the French-Swiss border.

It's hoped that the multi-billion-dollar experiment will help answer some of the deepest questions about our universe and how it came into being. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: Scientists have been working on the Large Hadron Collider for more than 15 years, including an 18-month delay when the first attempt to power it up ended up causing extensive damage. This morning was the moment of truth. Two beams of atomic particles, traveling in opposite directions in a tunnel 17 miles around, were supposed to meet in a head-on collision. After two false starts, the machine finally started to cooperate.

Ms. PAOLA CATAPANO: Be ready for applause very soon. The two beams are getting closer and closer. The counter is now very close to zero.

HARRIS: Webcast host Paola Catapano channeled the excitement of more than 3,000 scientists who had spent year upon year waiting for this instrument to reach this super-high energy level.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. CATAPANO: And here we have - we have the machine in collision mode. It's one o'clock on the 30th of March, 2010, an historical day.

HARRIS: As the two beams came together, the particles inside them did indeed collide with one another at record high energies. They hit the mark of seven tera electron volts, which is more than three times higher than what the next-best particle accelerator in Batavia, Illinois, can muster.

Within moments of that announcement, the four major detectors positioned in various locations around the accelerator ring began reporting that they were witnessing proton collisions at these new high energies. Tom LeCompte from Argonne National Lab was among the legion of scientists eager to dig up gems in this new data.

Mr. TOM LeCOMPTE (Argonne National Laboratory): I've seen some very exciting results, even hours after we took the data. So we're all ready to go.

HARRIS: Do you think anyone has publishable data so far from today?

Mr. LeCOMPTE: I certainly hope so, and I hope it's us.

HARRIS: LeCompte says he'll take at least a few days to examine what he's seen, but like many of the cheering, applauding and champagne-swilling scientists and engineers around him, this is a big day. The first results may win a place in scientific journals, but those glimpses aren't likely to be the big intellectual prizes that scientists have built this machine to find.

Mr. LeCOMPTE: One of the things we're looking for is dark matter, the substance that makes up most of the universe that we can't see, except through its gravitational influence.

HARRIS: Something invisible out there is tugging on us, and we don't know what. LeCompte says when the instrument finally doubles its energy levels a couple of years from now, it might also find a long-sought particle called the Higgs Boson, which by one theory is the key to understanding where all the matter in our universe came from a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

Mr. LeCOMPTE: But what I think we're really all hoping for is just a surprise: We turn this on, and we see something that nobody predicted, and nobody expected.

HARRIS: Over at another instrument at the collider, scientist Guido Tonelli said a little patience is required.

Mr. GUIDO TONELLI (Scientist, Large Hadron Collider): We are just at the beginning. Indeed, we have to do a lot of work. We have to understand our detector, to understand physics in this new region of energy. But if we are lucky, within a few months, we'll be able to really start a major adventure in modern physics.

HARRIS: And today, they got off to a strong start. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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'Big Bang Machine' Smashes Energy Record

Scientists celebrate after the Large Hadron Collider started smashing protons at record power. i

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva celebrate after the particle accelerator started smashing protons at record energies earlier today. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Scientists celebrate after the Large Hadron Collider started smashing protons at record power.

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva celebrate after the particle accelerator started smashing protons at record energies earlier today.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists in Geneva cheered early Tuesday after the Large Hadron Collider started making subatomic particles collide head-on at energies far greater than have ever been achieved before.

The $10 billion particle accelerator straddles the Swiss-French border and has been 15 years in the making. It is designed to send beams of protons whizzing around a 17-mile circular tunnel, and then smash them together at high speed, creating a shower of debris that can be studied to learn more about the basic building blocks of the universe.

A Whole New Scale Of Collisions

The concept of having atomic particles collide in this way is not a new idea, but, in the case of the LHC, the collision energies are completely off the chart.

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

"This is physics in the making, the beginning of a new era, we have collisions at 7 TeV [teraelectron volts]," Paola Catapano, a CERN scientist and spokeswoman, told Agence France-Presse. A teraelectron volt is a measure of energy.

To put this in perspective, a mosquito uses 1 TeV when it's flying. So, at first, 7 might not seem like that much. But the difference is that, in the LHC, you take all that energy, and pack it into a small subatomic space. As a result, you get a huge amount of energy in that small space, and it's enough to blow atomic particles to bits.

Up And Running, But Not Full Throttle

The LHC is running at only about half-capacity today, and it will be for the next couple of years. Scientists will then turn it off to do some upgrades and turn it back on in 2013 or so.

A diagram of the activity during a high-energy collision inside the Large Hadron Collider. i

A control room display at CERN shows data from a subatomic collision inside the Large Hadron Collider. The $10 billion particle accelerator directed two proton beams into each other at energies far greater than ever before. Anja Niedringhaus/AP hide caption

toggle caption Anja Niedringhaus/AP
A diagram of the activity during a high-energy collision inside the Large Hadron Collider.

A control room display at CERN shows data from a subatomic collision inside the Large Hadron Collider. The $10 billion particle accelerator directed two proton beams into each other at energies far greater than ever before.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

Once at full power, scientists hope the LHC will help unlock some of the most important questions of physics.

Scientists know that only 4 percent of the matter in the universe is actually visible. The rest, according to theory, is a mix of so-called dark matter and dark energy. But by looking at the subatomic debris from these collisions, scientists are hoping they can sort out what those invisible sources of energy and matter are.

The 'God' Particle

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. Some people even call it the "God particle." That's because this particle could help explain how the energy from the Big Bang turned into mass.

"This will give us a clue of how we were created in the beginning," CERN scientist Despiona Hatzifotiadu told AFP.

But they're unlikely to find the Higgs particle until the Hadron Collider is at full power. And, even then, it will probably have to run for about a year or so before it can produce enough Higgs-Bosons for actual study — if it produces any at all, that is.

LHC Could Cause Black Holes, But Tiny Ones

Some people have been wondering if there's a danger associated with the LHC — that it might end up creating a black hole. Experts say collisions of these energies do happen elsewhere in the universe. Cosmic rays, for one, pack this kind of energy. And we're still here.

Still, researchers say there is a small chance that the collider could produce black holes, but if it did, they would likely be extremely tiny, and last only a fraction of a second — they would essentially evaporate. Physicists say there is essentially no chance that a black hole would form and start gobbling up the matter around it.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report

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