Large Hadron Collider Smashes A Record

The world’s largest particle smasher is running again. After being closed down for repairs, the CERN supercollider (which sits on the French-Swiss border) sent particle beams smashing into each other again this week, setting a new world record for high energy collisions.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, a smashing success at the world's largest physics experiment. After being shut down for months of repairs, the Large Hadron Collider - now, that's that giant super-collider that's colliding particles together on the border of France and Switzerland. The LHC - it's up and running again, and on Tuesday physicists flip the switch, send the particle beams going in different directions, right at each other. And they set - they've already set a world record. The particles met at a record breaking seven trillion electrical volts.

And joining me now to talk about what all these numbers mean and how much research we can expect to see coming out of it now that it's up and running is Howard Gordon. He is the deputy operations program manager for U.S. ATLAS Operations at CERN, and he's also a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Lab out there in Long Island in Upton. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. HOWARD GORDON (Deputy Operations Program Manager; U.S. ATLAS Operations): Thank you, Ira, nice to talk to you.

FLATOW: Everybody very excited.

Dr. GORDON: We're having a great week. It was spectacular to be able to sit here in New York and watch on the Web all of our colleagues in Switzerland, as you say, colliding those protons together and seeing the first collision.

FLATOW: Now...

Dr. GORDON: And actually, we were able to take that data across the Atlantic on the fibers and analyze them here in the U.S.

FLATOW: What does that mean, seven teravolts?

Dr. GORDON: Ira, it's teraelectron volts. So as you said seven - so each beam of protons has about three and a half trillion electron volts. One and a half electron volts would be the energy we get from a flashlight battery, so you just have to multiply that by three and a half trillion to see the energy that's in that proton.

They go very close to the speed of light. And what we do is we use Einstein's famous equation, E equals MC squared, to take the energy and produce some mass. And so we're producing new particles, hopefully, that will give us some understanding of the universe that we're living in.

FLATOW: Now, the more electron volts you have, does that give you a bigger mass?

Dr. GORDON: What really happens is the proton is not an elementary particle.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GORDON: Proton is made out of three - what we call valence quarks and held together by the strong force or the gluons. What we're really interested in is colliding the quarks or the gluons together. So the higher the energy the protons have, the more energy those quarks or gluons have, and that's what we need to produce the harder mass.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how long before we start seeing, you know, any results? You have a lot of data coming out.

Dr. GORDON: Right. So...

FLATOW: How about the result?

Dr. GORDON: We have to - as the director general of CERN said this week, we have to have a little bit of patience. We expect to run this year and next. And we could have some discoveries by the end of next year depending on how lucky we are. But the energy will only be, as you said, seven trillion electron volts. That's half the design energy of the LHC.

Then in 2012, the machine will be off for some repairs. And, hopefully, in 2013, the full energy or near the full energy would be achieved. And then, the window of opportunity will actually be larger. So we could see some results at the end of next year or the following year, but more likely for some of the more difficult experiments like the question of what gives particles their mass, the Higgs boson...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. GORDON: ...it might take another couple of years.

FLATOW: So you have to get all the way up to full operating power before you get to the Higgs level?

Dr. GORDON: It depends on what the mass of the Higgs is. The Higgs mass is something we don't know. If we - if it happened to be something within our reach, we would see it in the next couple of years. But more likely, in order to have a complete survey, we need the full energy of the LHC.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. And the Higgs is a holy grail because why?

Dr. GORDON: Well, it's the conjecture, a theoretical conjecture that the world has a Higgs field. And as particles move through that field, they acquire mass, because otherwise, we don't understand what gives particles their mass. And we think that this collider will actually be able to answer that question. Even if the Higgs doesn't exist, there might be something else that we would see in that energy region.

FLATOW: So there's a standard model of how the world works? What the...

Dr. GORDON: Correct.

FLATOW: And the Higgs is a particle that fits into that equation.

Dr. GORDON: It's conjecture and it's a part of a theoretical framework. But until it's actually seen experimentally, we don't know if this conjecture is true.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. There are scientists I have spoken to who said they would love nothing better than not to see the Higgs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GORDON: Well, that's the opportunity. There is always the unexpected. As I said, when we get to the full intensity and the full energy of this machine, we'll be able to have a huge window of opportunity that we haven't seen before, and we know that for sure. And so, to find something that we didn't even expect - and this has happened in the past with opportunities once you have a new regime that you can study, then you sometimes find things that you didn't even expect.

FLATOW: Now, the Higgs belongs to a family something particles that are called supersymmetry.

Dr. GORDON: No, no.

FLATOW: Am I wrong about that?

Dr. GORDON: Ira, there maybe a supersymmetric Higgs, so there could be...

FLATOW: But that's part of the theory is that there would be a Higgs...

Dr. GORDON: There doesn't have to be. So there is another possibility that there would be supersymmetric particles produced at the LHC. And one of - and there could be a supersymmetric Higgs as well, because for every particle, there might be a supersymmetric particle. So if there's a standard Higgs, there could be a supersymmetric Higgs, or a standard quark, there would a supersymmetric quark.

The reason why the supersymmetry concept is - gets a lot of attention is that it could be the source of the dark energy in the universe that we don't - we don't know why there is dark energy, actually. You know, about six times as much mass as we can see from all the stars and planets and everything that we can see in the universe including our own bodies and everything, we're only one-sixth of all the total mass that's in the universe. That dark energy is something which is a big mystery, and we might have an opportunity to see it at the Large Hadron Collider.

FLATOW: Would we see the dark mass also?

Dr. GORDON: The dark matter, yes, the dark matter.

FLATOW: The dark matter not the energy.

Dr. GORDON: No, not the dark energy. The dark energy is the thing that's - we think is causing the universe to accelerate. We see that from the supernova. And we won't actually touch that in the Large Hadron Collider. We won't be able to address that. That's being addressed by other experiments.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Will this - will the - will results answer anything about string theory or whether we should say goodbye to it or not?

Dr. GORDON: Well, we - there are a lot of theorists that feel that we might be able to see extra dimensions at the Large Hadron Collider. You know, gravity is very weak, and one reason why it might be weak is that it finds itself strong in other dimensions.

And we could see some very spectacular events at our experiments that would be evidence of extra dimensions. So that's another thing which people are very excited about.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking about the super collider on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Howard Gordon. So people are quite excited this week. Will, you know, will the excitement continue? Or is it going to die down a little bit as they have to actually now start sifting through the data and do the hard work?

Dr. GORDON: Well, I think that it'll be exciting because everything that we measure at this energy is going to be something new. We see the first distributions of particles, and we have to rediscover all the standard model particles which you mentioned before, the W and the Z, the boson, the top quark, things that have been discovered in the past. But we'll be studying them in a new light and a new energy range. And so that will be exciting. And I think that excitement will continue throughout the next several years.

FLATOW: Let me get a question or two in if I can. Let's go to Sharon(ph) in Hollywood, Florida. Hi, Sharon.

SHARON (Caller): Hi, there. I have a question for you, which concerns me. What's going to happen to Fermi Lab in Batavia, Illinois? And...

FLATOW: Or Brookhaven.

SHARON: ...the lack of funding?

FLATOW: Or Brookhaven out in Long Island?

SHARON: Well, my daughter worked at the one in Batavia, so I'm most familiar with it.

FLATOW: Okay.

Dr. GORDON: I think, first of all, Fermi Lab has a great chance of discovering the Higgs boson in the next couple of years while the LHC comes up to full potential. And it would be nothing better than if the U.S. could discover the Higgs boson there. They're going to be running. But then, it's going to phase out, the Tevatron will phase out, and Fermi Lab is looking for its next role, and there's a lot of discussion about that. So I think the future of Fermi Lab is something which will continue but it will go in a different direction.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Dick(ph) in Hopkington(ph), Massachusetts. Hi, Dick.

DICK (Caller): Hi, Hopkinton. There's no king in Hopkinton. The - I am a BOINC geek. And I was wondering if the LHC@home project, what sort of contribution does that really made to the design and fine-tuning of the LHC?

Dr. GORDON: I know that people are advertising that you can contribute your computer to the analysis of data, but I have to be honest with you that I'm not sure that it's going to make a significant contribution. The amount of computing that's necessary to do the analysis is huge. The amount of data that we produce in a single second before we filter it is equivalent to a stack of CDs about a mile high without any plastic cases.

And in one year, we produce that much data totally for analysis in each of the major experiments, the four major experiments. So it takes huge computing power, and computing is distributed over all the world, but it's concentrated in large centers, like there is one at Brookhaven. And there are several other centers in the U.S.

FLATOW: So is the data all distributed around at - different people take different parts of it...

Dr. GORDON: Yes.

FLATOW: ...and examine it?

Dr. GORDON: That's right.

FLATOW: Now, what part do you have? Do you have a piece of that data coming your way?

Dr. GORDON: We have all the data that was taken this week and we're starting to analyze it already. So...

FLATOW: So, are people surprised no giant black hole didn't form when...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...are they upset?

Dr. GORDON: I wasn't surprised, but I saw the headline in The New York Post that the world doesn't end. And my brother is always giving me trouble about this, but we know from the fact that cosmic rays actually produce higher energy collisions, and if you look at the cosmic rays that have been striking all over the universe, there would evidence of such a black hole if it existed, the kind that's a catastrophic black hole.

We would be lucky to see this kind of microscopic black holes that could be produced. They would evaporate very quickly and give a spectacular signature in our detector, but they wouldn't do any harm.

FLATOW: But could you actually make one, see one?

Dr. GORDON: Well, that's - it's possible. But we don't know. We have to do the experiment.

FLATOW: And could you do it at the energies you have now?

Dr. GORDON: It's possible. I can't promise, but it's certainly possible.

FLATOW: Are you ready to start another headline right here?

Dr. GORDON: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GORDON: Not today. We haven't seen one yet.

FLATOW: That would be the headline: We haven't seen one yet. You could say that about UFOs also, but...

Dr. GORDON: We're looking for - as we said before, the things that are unexpected are the most exciting in the sense that you don't know what you're going to find. It's a new energy region so we have to see what we can find.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Gordon, good luck to you.

Dr. GORDON: Okay.

FLATOW: And thank you for taking - congratulations.

Dr. GORDON: Thank you. It's been a great week.

FLATOW: It's been a long time, hasn't it?

Dr. GORDON: Yeah. I've been working in this area of physics for longer than I want to admit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Me too.

Dr. GORDON: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot. Have a good weekend.

Dr. GORDON: Thank you, bye-bye.

FLATOW: Howard Gordon is the deputy operations program manager for U.S. ATLAS Operations at CERN. He's also a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, New York.

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