RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. And while you were sleeping, the world's most powerful particle accelerator rumbled to life at the CERN laboratory in Europe. The experiment is gargantuan in scale. It inhabits a 17-mile tunnel that runs underneath farmland in Switzerland and France. The hopes are equally grand for what it might uncover about the subatomic world. NPR's David Kestenbaum joins us now to talk about what happened really just a little while ago.
David, good morning.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: What happened?
KESTENBAUM: Well, this is a particle collider. So the idea is you smash together subatomic particles and see what comes out. So you have to get the particles up to very high speeds. And to do that they built the underground 17-mile tunnel. It's sort of like a circular racetrack. And this morning they put some particles in the racetrack and they sent them all the way around the circle. We have some audio. It sounded like this.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Woman: Three, two, one, go.
(Soundbite of applause)
KESTENBAUM: You can see there wasn't much time between the three, two, one and the applause. And that's because the particles are moving at close to the speed of light, so it just takes a tiny fraction of a second to go around. There's going to be a long shakedown period. You know, they won't be actually taking data just yet. But this has been years in the making.
MONTAGNE: OK. So let's talk about how big this is. You've been there. Give us a sense.
KESTENBAUM: I mean, it's really - everything about it is just insanely large. I mean, if you wanted to shoot a science fiction movie you don't have to bring any props. It's all there. So I went to see one of the detectors, which is pieces of equipment to monitor the collisions. And to get there you kind of drive through farmlands. You park in a parking lot. There's a nondescript hangar-like building. You go inside, and then there's this hole in the ground - a pristine, sort of white-walled hole going down something like 300 feet.
And you take an elevator down. At the bottom of that hole what they've lowered down is a huge like seven stories high or something piece of scientific equipment, and there are people crawling all over it. You can actually get lost in it. There are a series of like trap doors and ladders. I mean, it's just - everything about this is just insanely gigantic.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, one of the tabloid versions of this and how a lot of people have heard about it is the fear that it might create a black hole that would devour the Earth and maybe everything around it. but in fact this particle accelerator might be able to create miniature black holes. And you know, is it a good idea?
KESTENBAUM: Well, it's true. I mean they'd be very excited if they made black holes. There's no danger that it's going to destroy the Earth. There's actually a Web site called something like Has the LHD Destroyed the Earth? And if you go to it there's just a big word that says no. But, you know...
MONTAGNE: Well, that's reassuring.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KESTENBAUM: Yes, you can trust the Web. Black holes are a long shot. They would evaporate instantly. But there is a whole list of weird things that are predicted they might see. One is this mysterious particle called the Higgs, which would help explain why things have mass. You've probably never wondered about that. Or dark matter - the particles that astronomers see tugging on the galaxies but are sort of invisible. They might actually make these here. So they won't, you know, they won't know for a bit, but those are the things on the list.
MONTAGNE: This experiment is costing something like $8 billion. Scientists from more than 80 countries are involved. In just that way why did it and how did it get so big?
KESTENBAUM: You know, in some ways they are sort of a victim of their own success, the physicists here, because they have this model of the subatomic world that has been fantastically successful to like 10 decimal places. It predicts everything you see. And so in previous smaller experiments they see interesting things. But the model works really well.
And what's interesting about this experiment is that it really pushes their understanding of the basic building blocks of the universe to the breaking point, where they feel like they're definitely going to have to see something new.
I asked one scientist what if you don't see anything. He said, well, I'll cry. But I don't think that will happen. I'm confident we will see something.
MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.
KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR science correspondent David Kestenbaum.
And today scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research successfully completed the first major test in an experiment aimed at understanding the building blocks of the universe.