Right now, as we speak, something freaky, mind-boggling, unbelievable (insert your own adjective here) is taking place within a circular tunnel buried underneath France and Switzerland. And it’s entirely possible that you’ve never heard a word about it.
The tunnel, which is 17 miles in circumference and lies some 330 feet below the ground, holds the Large Hadron Collider (LHC, for short), the largest machine ever built (as in, since the beginning of time). It is operated by CERN, the 20-nation European Organization for Nuclear Research. (The U.S., although we chipped in a cool $542 million to build it, does not have an official seat at the table – but there are more American scientists working on the LHC than those from any other country.)
So what is it? The LHC is a particle accelerator (stick with me, this is fascinating), and with it, scientists are hoping to recreate conditions that were present at the beginning of time.
Here is how it works, to the best of my understanding. (Science was actually my worst subject in school, so I’ll make this quick and easy.)
We all know about atoms, those basic units of matter, and how they are comprised of electrons, neutrons, and protons. (And protons and neutrons are composed of even smaller particles, called quarks.) Within the LHC complex, physicists strip electrons from atoms, creating what are called “free protons.”
Two of these protons at a time are beamed into the huge particle accelerator from opposite sides. They are sent around at faster and faster speeds and then, when they reach their maximum speed (more on that in a moment), they are forced to collide. (The first collision of this type took place on March 29, 2010.)
And that’s pretty much it. That’s what this gargantuan, expensive ($9 billion) machine does.
So why have roughly half (7200) of all the particle physicists in the world devoted themselves to this project? According to them, the only way to fill in gaps in our understanding of the “standard model” of particle physics (the building blocks of the universe) is with experimental data. They hope to examine the matter that is created by these “big bang” collisions and learn more about: dark energy; dark matter (which makes up a stunning 96% of the universe); extra dimensions; and, of course, they are hoping to either prove or disprove the hypothetical “Higgs Boson” (which I am not going to go into here.)
Okay, I’m done. Told you it would be quick.
Here are a few fun facts, though, and you may want to be sitting down when you read these:
- A single magnet in just one of the stations positioned around the LHC has a magnetic field 100,000 times as strong as Earth’s.
- The LHC’s magnets must be chilled to a temperature of –271 degrees Celsius – which is one degree colder than deep outer space. Thus, somewhere in the bowels of this machine lies the coldest place in the universe.
- Each proton goes around the entire 17-mile ring an impossible 11,000 times per second. This is 99.999999% of the speed of light. (It is impossible for matter to reach the speed of light – this is about as close as we can get.)
If you are a total nerd like me, and you need to know more, click here to read the excellent article “The Genesis 2.0 Project” from the January 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, which is where I first learned about this.
Click here to see pictures of this amazing machine.
And here is the very chipper, official website for the LHC, which is surprisingly easy to navigate, surprisingly low-tech (I guess they have better things to do than create flashy graphics), and which is written by endearingly enthusiastic people who use lots of exclamation points. As well they should.
(Lastly, I don’t have room in this post to debate the merits or morality of this endeavor, from a resources standpoint. I am probably sympathetic to both camps, pro and con. But as always, you’re more than welcome to leave a comment…)