GENEVA (Reuters) – International scientists celebrated the successful start of a huge particle-smashing machine on Wednesday which aims to simulate the conditions of the “Big Bang” that created the universe.
Experiments using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the biggest and most complex machine ever made, could revamp modern physics and unlock secrets about the universe and its origins.
The project has had to work hard to deny suggestions by some critics that the experiment could create tiny black holes of intense gravity that could suck in the whole planet.
Such fears spurred huge public interest in advanced physics ahead of the start up of the 10 billion Swiss franc ($9 billion) machine, which proceeded smoothly on Wednesday morning.
Scientists in the control room at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, broke into applause as they sent particle beams in both directions around the LHC’s 27-km (17-mile) underground chamber, drawing global praise.
“The worries that scientists had were nothing to do with being swallowed up by black holes and everything to do with technical hitches or electronic failure,” said professor Jim al-Khalili, a physicist at the University of Surrey in England.
“Now, after a collective sigh of relief, the real fun starts,” al-Khalili said. “No matter what we find, we will be unlocking the secrets of the universe.”
Eventually, the scientists want to trigger tiny collisions at nearly the speed of light, an attempt to recreate on a miniature scale the heat and energy of the Big Bang, a concept of the origin of the universe that dominates scientific thinking.
The Big Bang is thought to have occurred 15 billion years ago when an unimaginably dense and hot object the size of a small coin exploded in a void, spewing out matter that expanded rapidly to create stars, planets and eventually life on Earth.
Lyn Evans, project leader for what experts are calling the biggest scientific experiment in human history, declined to say when CERN would start to smash particle beams together in the accelerator straddling the Swiss-French border.
“The LHC is its own prototype so it is difficult to judge how long it will take,” he said. “I think what has happened this morning bodes very well that it will go quickly.”
Once the LHC starts up at full speed, it will be able to engineer 600 million collisions every second, with protons traveling at 99.99 percent of the speed of light.
Physicists hope such high-energy clashes will fill in the blanks of modern physics whose theories cannot yet fully explain gravity or mass.
The data recorded by the LHC — measuring the location of particles to a few millionths of a meter, and the passage of time to a few billionths of a second — will be transmitted to computers around the world for scientists to review.
They will be looking for how the particles come together, fly apart, or dissolve. The conditions in the LHC could also confirm or disprove the existence of the Higgs Boson, a theoretical particle named after Scottish scientist Peter Higgs who first proposed it in 1964.
Also referred to as the “God particle,” the Higgs Boson is thought to give matter its mass. It has never been observed.
“The LHC is a discovery machine,” said CERN Director General Robert Aymar, a French physicist. “Its research program has the potential to change our view of the universe profoundly, continuing a tradition of human curiosity that’s as old as mankind itself.”
Scientists halted the particle beam’s counter-clockwise spin temporarily on Wednesday afternoon after problems with the machine’s magnets caused its temperature to warm slightly.
CERN officials said such minor glitches were to be expected given the intricacy of the machine, which is cooled to minus 271.3 degrees Celsius (minus 456.3 degrees Fahrenheit).
Project leader Evans, who wore jeans and running shoes for the LHC’s debut, said careful calibrations would be required at every step for the high-profile experiment.
“This is a machine of enormous complexity. Things can go wrong at any time. But this morning we had a great start.”
By Robert Evans
Wed Sep 10, 2008