Thursday, September 11, 2008

LHC online - we're still here

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), located on the border between Switzerland and France, came online at 04:38 Eastern time on the morning of September 10. Here is a brief excerpt from the New York Times article which was filed from Batavia, Illinois at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory:
Once upon a time the United States ruled particle physics. For the last two decades, Fermilab’s Tevatron, which hurls protons and their mirror opposites, antiprotons, together at energies of a trillion electron volts apiece, was the world’s largest particle machine.

By year’s end, when the CERN collider has revved up to five trillion electron volts, the Fermilab machine will be a distant second. Electron volts are the currency of choice in physics for both mass and energy. The more you have, the closer and hotter you can punch back in time toward the Big Bang.

Prior to startup, there had been kooky concerns, unfortunately echoed by a less than scientifically literate press, about the possibility of Dire Things Happening. These included the creation of one or more mini black holes in the LHC that would then proceed to swallow the Earth; formation of a nugget of "strange matter" which would convert everything that touched it to strange matter as well; or (my favourite) the LHC would trigger another Big Bang and obliterate the Universe. Yesterday at work, I weighed the odds of the world ending overnight, versus doing the much less interesting updates for the Wednesday morning status meeting, and I chose in favour of doing the updates.

A good thing, too, as none of the disaster scenarios happened. As pointed out by the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) and independent physicists, cosmic rays collide with particles in the upper atmosphere with much higher energies than the LHC is capable of producing. Had any of these disaster scenarios been likely, we would already have been swallowed.

For physicists, the LHC represents an opportunity, perhaps best summarized by Christopher Potter of McGill University in the Globe and Mail's article:
"This is what our entire careers have been building up to: It's the one chance in our generation to answer the biggest questions of science."

That's an inspiring thought to begin a new era in physics research.

1 comment:

cdgies said...

Are you aware of the Sinkotron ( I know I am not spelling this right) in Saskatoon?