The “Big Bang” machine with which scientists hope to re-create conditions at the dawn of the universe smashed the world record for accelerating subatomic particles yesterday.
Two beams of protons, one of the building blocks of atoms, were spun round the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at an energy of 1.18 teraelectronvolts (TeV).
The electron volt is a unit of energy used in particle physics. One TeV is equivalent to a million million electron volts. The previous world record for particle acceleration was 0.98 TeV held by the Tevatron Collider in the US since 2001.
Scientists re-started the LHC 10 days ago after its much publicised initial launch in September 2008 was followed by a disappointing shut-down. A serious fault which damaged a number of superconducting magnets resulted in months of repairs.
The giant machine is housed underground in a circular tunnel spanning 27 kilometres between the French and Swiss borders near Geneva. It was built to re-create conditions moments after the Big Bang that created the universe around 14 billion years ago.
What exactly is the LHC?
This is probably the biggest international collaboration outside of the United Nations. It has involved something like 10,000 scientists and engineers from 500 research institutes in 80 countries. The building of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been co-ordinated by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva, which carries out studies into particle physics on behalf of the 20 nations that fund it. Cern has already built several particle colliders, or "atom smashers", which have produced fundamental discoveries in physics leading to several Nobel prizes.
How safe is it?
The risks of anything going disastrously wrong are so small as to be insignificant. Reports referring to the "infinitesimally small" risk of the LHC creating a giant black hole have been universally ridiculed by the experts involved in the project – and many more who are not involved.
What are they hoping to discover?
Many things. Essentially they are trying to find out what else matter is made of – the sub-atomic particles that have yet to be found – and how it is all stuck together. Ultimately, there is the hope of unifying all the fundamental forces of nature into a single "theory of everything" that can explain everything from the strong, short-acting forces holding an atomic nucleus together to the relatively weak, long-range forces acting between planets and galaxies – otherwise known as gravity. One early discovery may be to find the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle that has never been detected.
What's a Higgs particle?
These sub-atomic particles were first proposed by Professor Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh in the 1960s. In theory, they could explain why gravity behaves in the way it does – by exerting an effect on matter. The so-called "Higgs field" is filled with these particles and when matter passes through this field they experience mass. So if the LHC discovered Higgs particles, it would go a long way to explaining the force of gravity.
Why does the LHC have to be 27KM long?
It needn't be 27km long. This was the tunnel that was already there at Cern from a previous particle collider known as the LEP (Large Electron-Positron Collider). Because scientists decided to "recycle" the tunnel, they were stuck with a length of 27km. The important thing was to have a tunnel long enough for the protons to be accelerated to high-enough energy levels, and big enough to house the large machines that make up the four experiments that form the LHC. For that, engineers had to cut out huge underground caverns to contain the four experiments.
How much has it all cost?
The ballpark figure is £5bn (Sfr10bn). It has come mostly from international subscriptions to Cern, with the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council paying about £500m over the decade or so that it took to build the LHC. CERN's 20 member states have contributed the bulk of the cost, with the remainder coming from collaborating institutes around the world.
What's a hadron?
Hadrons are types of sub-atomic particle. Protons are hadrons.
What is dark matter?
This is the 95 per cent of the Universe that cannot be seen by conventional scientific instruments. We know it's there from the gravitational influence it exerts, but we don't really know what it's made of. However, the LHC could discover sub-atomic particles that might explain dark matter. One hot contender is super-symmetry particles that are mirror images of the particles we know about, but which have never been detected.
History of the Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is approved by the Cern Council
Construction of the LHC begins
10 September LHC is successfully switched on for the first time
19 September Explosion forces Cern to shut down machine
3 November Piece of bread, believed to have been dropped by a bird, causes a power cut
20 November After 14 months of repairs the LHC is restarted
23 November Machine smashes proton beams together for first time
2009 operating expenditure: £530m
Current staff: 2400