>CERN: The worlds largest particle accelerator in Switzerland will simulate the Big Bang


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CERN: Rehearsing the Big Bang

On a gigantic underground racetrack, tiny particles speed in a circle, just to crash into each other head-on. The idea of this is to simulate nothing less than the beginning of our universe. These days this big-bang machine is being brought into operation at CERN in Switzerland.



At CERN there are underground experiment caverns as big as cathedrals. This is the CMS measuring equipment.
Picture by CERN

This machine breaks all records of dimension you can imagine! Basically tiny particles are accelerated to almost 300,000 kilometres per second in a circular tunnel of around 27 kilometres length. More than 1200 super magnets, each 14 metres long, the size of a motorhome and as expensive as a family house, keep two particle beams running in opposite directions on the course. The magnetic field these magnets produce is 200.000 times as strong as the one around our planet. To prevent the power supply lines feeding these giant high power magnets from burning out, the biggest cooling system in the world, operating with 700,000 litres of liquid helium, is required. It enables a constant temperature of minus 271 degrees, the "big freeze" that prevails only far out in space. At such low temperatures the current can flow almost without resistance. In addition, enormous pumps produce a so-called ultra-high vacuum in the circular tunnel, also similar to outer space. If you compare the volume of this 27 kilometre long tunnel, it is as if you had to pump the Madison Square Garden completely void of air.

In four places along this mad race track 100 metres below Lake Geneva the speeding particles are conducted against each other, so that they collide at 99.99 percent of the speed of light and explode at a temperature of many billions of degrees centigrade. At each of these four points of collision there is a complicated measuring device as big as a five-storey house located in a cave with the dimensions of a cathedral that is meant to capture and measure the fragments.

The 27 kilometre long CERN-vacuum-tunnel under Lake Geneva. Supermagnets keep the elementary particles on target
Picture by CERN

Let alone only the helium for the cooling of the magnets costs 4 million Euros. And the particle canons, which shoot out several million packages of protons per second (obtained from hydrogen) cost 1.9 billion Euros.

Enormous sums of money are flowing into this latest project, the so-called "Large Hadron Collider" (LHC) of the international research centre CERN, that was brought into operation on September 10th, 2008. But the goal seems to match the effort, as the questions at stake are: What was at the beginning of everything? And how does our universe work?

A worker fuses together part of the 27 kilometre long vacuum tunnel at CERN in Switzerland
Picture by CERN

Since Einstein and his "E=mc2" gave the world an almost perfect explanatory model for the question "What is matter?", physicists have a new dilemma. One of the most common forces, gravity of all things, has never been explained by Einstein’s formulas. How can there be matter particles (e.g. photons) which are detectable after all, but have no mass and speed through space completely unimpressed an uninfluenced (at 300,000 km/s)? What makes the difference?

Around 1964 the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs had already developed a theory to solve this problem which met with worldwide recognition and was very much in line with Einstein's formulas. It to this day just has one small but important "flaw": To make it fit and work, alongside the electron, three different neutrinos, six quarks, a muon, a tauon and two bosons scientists need to add another elementary particle in their model collection, the Higgs particle, named after the scientist. But up till now this Higgs particle has not shown up in any single experiment.

With CERNs new particle accelerator it will be possible to produce tiny Black Holes. This is a simulation of the event.
Picture by CERN

When two protons collide in the centre of the Swiss particle accelerator beneath Lake Geneva such unbelievable conditions are created, as existed in the first split seconds after the big bang. Therefore scientists hope to lure the Higgs particle out of its reserve, alongside with the first signs of matter, the infamous quark-gluon-plasma. Scientists are sure: "If it exists, we will be able to prove it with this machine."

600 million times a second protons crash into one another in the vacuum-tunnel. At the same time a true tsunami of data floods a highly sensitive measuring device to be filtered and processed. 90.000 mainframe computers are connected worldwide to manage this task of evaluation and filtering, high speed circuit calculators resembling the successor of the "Worldwide Web" (www) called "The Grid". If you wanted to burn this incredible mass of data from one year of operation onto standard CDs, you would need a 30 kilometre high stack of them.

Although at the CERN research centre experiments on small particle acceleration have been carried out since the sixties featuring similar atomic crash tests, such a gigantic big-bang machine has never been implemented. For the first time in history so much energy is set free that tiny black holes could develope at the four collision points. An unsettling vision: in the X-Large-Version in outer space, black holes slurp up everything (including light) in their neighborhood like giant space waste chutes. Will the end of mankind be a self-constructed Black mini-Hole? In comparison: If you were to compress the mass of the whole Earth into a Black Hole, it would be an amusing 9 millimetres small. But the experts have given the all-clear: The say there is no danger...

This gigantic spider belonging to the CERN particle accelerator counts muons, tauons and gluons
Picture by CERN

You may now want to ask: What is the real use of this thing? What advantages brings this proton-carousel for real life? In 1989 a CERN worker, a guy called Tim Berners Lee, brought a concept to life that would facilitate the worldwide exchange of information for scientists: The "WWW", today's Internet. With the start of this new project, its probable successor "Grid" will experience its first real baptism of fire at CERN.


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© A report by Tobias Micke (21-01-07) – Contact