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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Big Bang Theory Experiment in Switzerland Excites scientists and scares sceptics

Scientists are about to get a chance to answer some of the deepest mysteries of the universe - in the most expensive experiment in history.

The Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland could turn the world of physics on its head.

But what exactly is it and what will the biggest particle accelerator ever built do? Here are the answers to some of your questions:

What's the point of this experiment?
Scientists are trying to unlock the secrets and answer unresolved questions about the universe. There are fundamental gaps in our basic understanding of physics and how the universe works. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will recreate conditions just after the Big Bang (the theory that a massive explosion created the universe) and may help to fill in missing knowledge. Physicists hope the experiment will help them understand what the universe is made of, what propels its expansion and predict its future.

How does it work?
Inside the accelerator, two beams of particles will travel in opposite directions at close to the speed of light. Thousands of magnets of different varieties and sizes will direct the beams around the accelerator. Because the particles are so small, another type of magnet is used to squeeze them closer together to encourage them to collide.

Scientists hope previously unseen particles will be discovered in the debris when beams smash together. The new particles are expected to provide new leads for physicists and may confirm existing theories.

What is the Higgs particle?
The Higgs particle is a theoretical idea to explain mass in the universe but it has never been proved. The theory suggests particles had no mass just after the Big Bang. When the temperature fell, an invisible force field was formed. When particles interact with the field they become heavier. If scientists could identify the Higgs particle or field using the LHC, it would explain why some particles have a greater mass than others and would support the current understanding of how particles work.

What if they don't find anything?
They may find no new particles which would be a setback for scientists trying to secure funding for the next generation collider machine. If they cannot prove the existence of the Higgs particle, it would mean theories about matter and mass have been developing along the wrong track for decades. Many scientists might consider that an exciting prospect because they would have to start theorising from scratch.

Who is involved in this?
The new particle accelerator might be buried along the Swiss-French border but it has attracted researchers from 80 countries. The £2.4bn project has mostly been financed by 20 European member states but the US and Japan are major contributors with observer status. Ten thousand scientists from 500 different institutions have been involved in developing the LHC.

When can we expect the results?

It has already taken two decades to get this far and it will take another two months just to get the proton beams colliding. The data recorded will fill around 100,000 DVDs every year but physicists may have to wait between five and 10 years before they get any significant results.

What are the risks?
Sceptics have filed suits in the US District Court in Hawaii and the European Court of Human Rights to stop the project. They claim the experiment will create a big black hole which could suck up all life on Earth. Several safety reviews of the LHC have been carried out which show there is no measurable risk.

Will it create black holes?
Nature forms black holes when stars collapse on themselves at the end of their lives. There is some speculation that the LHC could produce microscopic black holes. If they were created, they would evaporate away very quickly and would be too small to suck in any matter. The accelerator may help scientists understand more about black holes.
Hold on to your hats, folks. Smoke if you have them. Those inclined to do so, pray.

Because some time today -- I can't figure out the time zone difference -- the Large Hadron Collider is going to switch on deep under the mountains on the Swiss-French border.

Some nervous Nellies in the scientific community are afraid that this mammoth device is going to change, forever, more than science, which is supposed to be its purpose. They say the black holes it will create could create a super black hole that would swallow the planet.

If so, our happy little world is going to end with a Big Bang in reverse, not the prolonged whimper of our discontent that global warming is supposed to be causing.

But Al Gore might still have a little time to change gears and redraw his fanciful charts. It will take weeks before the particles zooming about in the underground collider in fact collide, precipitating, perhaps, Armageddon.

Interestingly enough, that's the same time that the chain reaction our own Large Canadian Collider has started this week is due to go off. We electrons are enjoined to contribute what energy we can muster to our own Big Bang next month.

I found out about the LHC way back in the newspaper the other day next to the obituaries, a section I find myself turning to more frequently at this stage in my life. I'm glad I did. I'd hate to think that I'd missed it if The end is so nigh.

Until then I'd never considered the current prime minister a major scientific achievement. I had assumed that, despite his rather cool manner, he was a person of soft flesh and warm blood -- a being of quirks, perhaps, but not quarks.

I understand that groupings of quarks make hadrons, of which we treat. The mind boggles -- well, mine does anyway -- at what makes up our Large Canadian Collider.

There's no doubt, though, that collisions are in his nature. In his parliamentary state of minus properties, he's been trying to provoke them. But the particulate matter in the Commons that is supposed to be negatively charged has seemed to veer away on other trajectories at the last millisecond.

Clearly, our Collider has concluded he must end this experiment on his own and exercise his properties outside the crucible that is Parliament -- a process that's akin to asexual reproduction.

We've all seen how he has managed to govern without being restricted by constitutional parameters and how he has altered the properties of politics. So he is ordering this campaign.

Chain reactions are seldom benign. The world of clashing protons, neutrons and hadrons has no conscience. The machine, once switched on, decides what will be.

So what does our Collider expect to gain from this exercise in which all our futures are at stake? The holy grail that scientists are hoping the LHC will reveal is something called the Higgs boson, an elusive particle that's supposed to give everything in the universe its mass and weight.

Does our Collider believe that his experiment can reveal the Harper boson, by which the mass of Canada and the weight of all its constituent parts will be determined for the foreseeable future?

How that would simplify things. With this boson in his locker, sailing the ship of state would be so much easier.

He wouldn't have to wear sweaters anymore, or cuddle babies gingerly, or pretend to like people, because he'd be an undetectable force with the power to cloud men's minds, the master of Canada's mass and its masses.

I wonder if St├ęphane Dion knows what he's up against. The Collider has assigned to him the physical properties of a buffoon. We're led to believe that he's an example of antimatter over mind.

When particles collide at 99.9999991 per cent of the speed of light at temperatures just 1.9 degrees above absolute zero, as they will beneath the Jura Mountains, the weak ones could leave only a trace, like a watermark, while the stronger could travel to another dimension with unknown consequences for our world.

Scientists say this should happen some time in October.

What impact will this experiment have on everyday life?
The work carried out by scientists at the European Nuclear Research Centre might seem far removed from everyday life, but it does push the boundaries of existing technologies and engineering in a way that can be adapted to benefit us all. For example, earlier work led to the creation of the internet.

Scientists working on the LHC have also created the "grid" which is described as the next generation internet and is 10,000 times faster than most broadband connections. For More information on "The Grid"

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