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Massive Particle Accelerator Revving Up
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Massive Particle Accelerator Revving Up

Research News


Later this summer, physicists plan to throw the switch on what is arguably the largest and most complex science experiment ever conducted. It's all taking place at an international laboratory called CERN. An underground ring of superconducting magnets, reaching from Switzerland into France, will smash together subatomic particles with terrifying force.

Physicists say they're not sure what will emerge from these collisions. They're hunting though - they're hunting a mysterious particle called the Higgs boson. It is also possible they will make miniature black holes or discover new dimensions of space-time.

None of this would make any sense without the help of the correspondent who's going to explain it for us. In the first of two stories from Switzerland, NPR's David Kestenbaum meets a man in purple corduroys who spends his day smoking and thinking about the universe.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: One of the funny things about the search for the secrets of the universe is that it almost always involves a lot of plugging in of cables and getting equipment to work. But there are some physicists who are paid to simply think and do a bunch of math.

Mr. ALVARO DE RUJULA (Physicist, CERN): My name is Alvaro de Rujula. I am a staff scientist at CERN…

KESTENBAUM: And a theoretical physicist, which explains the blackboards and…

Mr. DE RUJULA: It explains the mess that you can see in my office.

KESTENBAUM: Are you allowed to smoke in your office or are you breaking the rules?

Mr. DE RUJULA: I'm breaking the rules.

KESTENBAUM: De Rujula smiles. He looks like he may have just stepped out of another dimension — one filled with dry-witted, articulate scientists who roll their own cigarettes and wear bright-striped sweaters and purple pants. I have to say, on him, it's all working.

De Rujula has a kind of weary kind of humor, maybe because the pursuit of deep subatomic truths has been in a rut for three decades.

Mr. DE RUJULA: Particle physics, which is my business, has been quiet for a long time because we were too successful in the 1970s, when a thing called the standard model of particle physics was invented and developed.

KESTENBAUM: The standard model is arguably one of the crowning achievements of modern science, a theory of almost everything. It's an equation that explains with remarkable precision how particles interact at the smallest levels: the foundation of atoms, of chemistry, of biology, of existence.

Mr. DE RUJULA: We have never found any deviation from these models, so we've been right for 30 years.

KESTENBAUM: Which is kind of dull.

Mr. DE RUJULA: It's sort of boring.

KESTENBAUM: De Rujula lights another cigarette.

The thing is there has to be more than the standard model, he says. It has internal contradictions and it leaves some big, nearly philosophical questions unanswered. Like, what the heck is mass? Why are things hard to move? And what is that invisible dark matter that astronomers say is tugging on galaxies?

The answers could come from just outside his window. Three hundred feet underground, workers are installing new superconducting magnets in a long tunnel, a powerful particle accelerator capable of reproducing energies present just after the big bang. With it, the ideas that big thinkers like De Rujula can be tested.

The first accelerator like this was 12 inches around - this one, 16 miles. It has the understated name of the Large Hadron Collider.

Mr. DE RUJULA: Physics is an experimental science and we learn by doing experiments and seeing how nature behaves.

KESTENBAUM: The magnets form a racetrack of sorts for particles called protons. Protons are nothing special; they're inside every atom. But when this machine is running, the protons will race around and around and around really fast, almost the speed of light. And even though these particles are so small, you can't see them: the smallest thing you can imagine. Each will have the energy of a bus. A city bus barreling down the street put into one teeny particle. Actually there will be fleets of subatomic buses. Physicists call it a beam of particles.

Mr. DE RUJULA: The energy of a beam of particles is equivalent to a lot of kilotons of nuclear explosion. It will never produce an explosion, but if we lost the beam, it would make a hole in the ground which is 50 meters long or so.

KESTENBAUM: That's one reason the accelerator is 100 meters underground. It's mostly farmland here.

Mr. DE RUJULA: It doesn't do anything like making noise or radioactivity or anything. It's just buried there. That's why the French and Swiss milk continue to be so good, because the cows don't care.

KESTENBAUM: Actually the bus analogy is only half the story. The accelerator will crash the protons into each other, packing the energy of two buses colliding into a tiny speck of space.

Mr. DE RUJULA: So the energy density in the collision is gigantic.

KESTENBAUM: From that speck almost anything can be created. Not like a couch or a watermelon, but energy can be transformed into matter. That's Einstein's E=mc2. Theorists have all kinds of ideas for what might materialize. De Rujula says the machine will probe what he calls the vacuum of space.

Mr. DE RUJULA: Now that sounds very peculiar, but if you take a room and take everything out and then take the lights out and take the people out and take the air out, when you think that it is truly, truly empty, it isn't empty. It can still contain a substance, which is a vacuum, which is not entirely empty in some sense.

KESTENBAUM: One of the things left in the vacuum is thought to be something called the Higgs field. Named after a guy named Peter Higgs, the Higgs field would be a kind of omnipresent stickiness that grabs onto everything, making stuff hard to move, which is what we call mass.

Einstein explained gravity but not why things have mass in the first place.

Mr. DE RUJULA: We think that the masses of particles are a sort of friction of a particle with a vacuum. It doesn't quite travel freely in the vacuum but interact with it in some way.

KESTENBAUM: Associated with this Higgs field would be Higgs particles, which could be produced by the collisions in the accelerator. One physicist has called the Higgs's the God Particle.

A few non-scientists have been worried that physicists are getting a little too close to God for comfort. They're worried that this experiment could destroy the Earth, because one possibility is that the machine will make - this is true - miniature black holes.

Mr. DE RUJULA: These would be a particles of extraordinary density compared to usual objects.

KESTENBAUM: De Rujula says black holes would certainly be interesting because they would be evidence for extra tiny dimensions of space-time. But he doesn't think they are likely to appear. And if they do, they'll be harmless.

Mr. DE RUJULA: Those black holes will not the be dangerous ones of science fiction that eat up everything, and so on. Being so small they sort of break into pieces.

KESTENBAUM: Less of a long shot is the idea that the collisions will produce things like the dark matter particles. Physicists are confident they see dark matter affecting the motion of galaxies, but they have never known what the particles are.

There's also another possibility, which is that this $8 billion project will find nothing, or nearly nothing. De Rujula says this actually would be the most interesting outcome.

Mr. DE RUJULA: That would tell us we really haven't understood anything. And although that is the most interesting possibility, how do we explain that not finding something is the best possible thing that could happen to you? It will be very difficult.

KESTENBAUM: Difficult politically. If nothing is found, who knows, this could be the last large particle accelerator ever built. It is scheduled to officially begin operation in August.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find pictures of the project at And you can continue listening later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. That's when David joins the hundreds of scientists working underground on this project and puts his own head under a 2000-ton magnet.

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