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Scientists hail ‘Big Bang’ experiment

Posted by Junichi Kawagoe on 02.2010 News Out of English Newspaper   0 comments   0 trackback
Financial Times
By Andrew Jack

Published: March 30 2010 13:07 | Last updated: March 30 2010 19:04

Scientists trying to the crack the fundamental laws of physics on Tuesday said they had recreated in miniature the conditions just after the start of the universe, without bringing the world to an end.

In a groundbreaking moment, researchers operating the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva combined two opposing beams of sub-atomic particles travelling at almost the speed of light as they attempted to simulate events in the fraction of a second after the “Big Bang”, the most widely accepted theory.

After several false starts early on Tuesday, scientists just before 1pm local time brought together the two proton beams that had been running in alternate directions in the collider’s 27km loop in a vacuum at minus 271°C. The resulting heat was equivalent to 100,000 times that generated by the sun.

The success triggered rounds of applause and cheers from the scientists and journalists gathered in the circular control room, while allaying concerns that the experiment would create a black hole and destroy the universe.

Sixteen months after glitches brought the collider’s first effort to a halt, the breakthrough sparked worldwide interest, sharply slowing down a live webcast – and briefly outranking the singer Ricky Martin, who declared his homosexuality on Twitter during the day – as the collider recruited 100,000 Twitter followers.

Rolf Heuer, director-general of Cern, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics where the collider project is based, said: “It’s a great day to be a particle physicist. A lot of people have waited a long time for this moment, but their patience and dedication is starting to pay dividends.”

Large Hadron Collider
Sixteen months after glitches brought the collider’s first effort to a halt, the breakthrough sparked worldwide interest, sharply slowing down a live webcast and recruiting 100,000 Twitter followers

The breakthrough heralds the beginning of a new era in efforts to try to understand profound scientific questions, including whether the sub-atomic particles – quarks – inside the protons and neutrons can be freed; and why these latter particles weigh some 100 times more than the quarks of which they are composed.

The protons in the LHC, which requires 100 megawatts of power to operate, collided at more than 7 tera – or trillion – electronvolts (TeV), a measure of energy given to an electron as it accelerates through a potential of one volt. This was more than triple the levels of previous experiments.

Nearly three decades after the project was first discussed, and 15 years after construction of the SFr6.5bn collider began, the breakthrough signals the start of at least 18 months of experiments at the current energy levels, and still longer periods of analysis using “the Grid”, a vast international network of computers that will process 15m gigabytes of data a year. A paper released by Cern earlier this month concluded that “there can be little doubt that black hole production at the [Large Hadron Collider] would be an unacceptable and irresponsible risk”.

But officials were quick to argue on Tuesday that neutron stars showed these conditions would be safely reproduced in the collider.

“We are not doing anything that nature has not done before,” said a spokeswoman. “Nature shows us by the existence of neutron stars that we will not recreate black holes.”

Experiments with the Large Hadron Collider began in September 2008 but had to be halted after a fault damaged the magnets in the equipment.

The original objective was to reach 14 TeV, but in order to avoid a repetition of these problems, researchers will operate the collider at half that level for 18 months before a technical shut down and analysis. An attempt to reach the maximum level is only likely to take place in two or three years’ time.

Cern said it would know by Wednesday the number of internet users who visited its website on Tuesday to follow the project. The previous experiment in 2008 attracted 100m users.

Once they have “rediscovered” sub-atomic particles which have already been observed in the so-called Standard Model, the four separate experiments associated with the collider will start seeking the Higgs boson, a hypothetical elementary particle – sometimes dubbed God’s Particle – which has been postulated as a means of resolving inconsistencies in current theoretical physics to help explain the origin of mass.

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