Inspired by the book I’m currently reading called FlashForward by Robert J. Sawyer, I have decided to do a little insight into CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and the largest machine in the world. In my opinion, the LHC is a marvel of modern particle physics that has enabled researchers to plumb the depths of reality.
It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) between 1998 and 2008 in collaboration with over 10,000 scientists and hundreds of universities and laboratories, as well as more than 100 countries. It lies in a tunnel 27 kilometres (17 miles) in circumference and as deep as 175 meters (574 feet) beneath the France–Switzerland border. CERN state that their mission is to help uncover what the universe is made of and how it works. They achieve this by providing a unique range of particle accelerator facilities to researchers such as the LHC, to advance the boundaries of human knowledge.
The Large Hadron Collider is basically a 27-kilometre ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way. The giant circular tunnel is located 50–175 meters (165–575 feet) below ground, on the border between France and Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider first started up on 10 September 2008 and is located in CERN’s accelerator complex in Geneva, Switzerland.
With a budget of €7.5 billion, the LHC is one of the most expensive scientific instruments ever built. The total cost of the project is expected to be in the order of €3.1bn for the accelerator and €0.8bn for the CERN contribution to the experiments. The project took a quarter of a century to realize; planning began in 1984, and the final go-ahead was granted in 1994. Thousands of scientists and engineers from dozens of countries were involved in designing, planning, and building the LHC.
The term ‘hadron” in its name refers to subatomic composite particles composed of quarks held together by the strong force (as atoms and molecules are held together by the electromagnetic force). Inside the accelerator, two high-energy particle beams travel at close to the speed of light before they are made to collide. The beams travel in opposite directions in separate beam pipes – two tubes kept at ultrahigh vacuum. They are guided around the accelerator ring by a strong magnetic field maintained by superconducting electromagnets. The electromagnets are built from coils of special electric cable that operates in a superconducting state, efficiently conducting electricity without resistance or loss of energy. This requires chilling the magnets to ‑271.3°C – a temperature colder than outer space.
For this reason, much of the accelerator is connected to a distribution system of liquid helium, which cools the magnets, as well as to other supply services. Thousands of magnets of different varieties and sizes are used to direct the beams around the accelerator. Just prior to the collision, another type of magnet is used to “squeeze” the particles closer together to increase the chances of collisions. The particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing two needles 10 kilometres apart with such precision that they meet halfway. The beams inside the LHC are then made to collide at four locations around the accelerator ring, corresponding to the positions of four particle detectors – ATLAS, CMS, ALICE and LHCb.
One goal of the LHC project is to understand the fundamental structure of matter by re-creating the extreme conditions that occurred within a billionth of a second after the “Big Bang” by colliding beams of high-energy protons or ions at colossal speeds, close to the speed of light. This was the moment, around 13.7 billion years ago, when the Universe is believed to have started with an explosion of energy and matter.
Over the last 10 years, the LHC has been smashing atoms together for its two main experiments, ATLAS and CMS, which operate and analyze their data separately. From these experiments, they have generated more than 2,000 scientific papers on many areas of fundamental particle physics. On July 4, 2012, the scientific world watched with bated breath as researchers at the LHC announced the discovery of the Higgs boson “God particle”, the final puzzle piece in a five-decade-old theory called the Standard Model of physics. The Standard Model tries to account for all known particles and forces (except gravity) and their interactions. Back in 1964, British physicist Peter Higgs wrote a paper about the particle that now bears his name, explaining how mass arises in the universe.
The Higgs is actually a field that permeates all of space and drags on every particle that moves through it. Some particles trudge more slowly through the field, and this corresponds to their larger mass. The Higgs boson is a manifestation of this field, which physicists had been chasing after for half a century. The LHC was explicitly built to finally capture this elusive quarry. Eventually finding that the Higgs had 125 times the mass of a proton, both Peter Higgs and Belgian theoretical physicist Francois Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2013 for predicting its existence
Obviously, this scientific marvel has attracted a lot of conspiracy theorists who mostly believe that this “atom smasher” will in ONE way or another destroy the Earth. They believe if the particle smasher does not create a black hole that swallows up our world; it will pull an asteroid towards us, trigger monster earthquakes, or open a portal to allow Satan in to finish his work. A host of conspiracy theories even claim there is something more sinister behind the complex machine on the Swiss-French border than answering the mysteries of how the Universe started.
But any reputable physicist would state that such worries are unfounded. “The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction,” confirmed CERN Director General Robert Aymar.
The LHC shut down in December 2018 to go through two years of upgrades and repairs so the world and the universe are safe from destruction for now. When it comes back online, it will be able to smash atoms together with a slight increase in energy but at double the number of collisions per second. What it will find then is anybody’s guess. There is already talk of an even more powerful particle accelerator to replace it, situated in the same area but four times the LHC’s size so let’s watch this space for more news about this.