What Will the Collider Tell Us?
Flipping the ON switch on history's biggest and most expensive experiment. Buried under the French-Swiss border, the Large Hadron Collider has gotten its share of ink--and for good reason. Hearing about the sheer magnitude and price of what's been called the biggest and most expensive scientific experiment in human history is enough to instill fascination and excitement in even the most non-particle-physicists among us. Once it's running at full capacity, the project's researchers say, the $5.3 billion LHC, the biggest particle accelerator ever built, will be able to answer questions physicists never thought they'd get answers to, like why the universe formed the way it did and why matter has mass. Critics of the project say it could have the opposite effect, leading not to knowledge but instead humanity's demise. Technicians plan to flip the switch on the collider this week, sending bunches of protons around the concrete tube dispersed with supercooled electromagnets, to create the very first collisions. Last month I visited CERN, the international nuclear research lab near Geneva that houses the LHC. The project's vital statistics jump out: an underground ring 16 miles in circumference will propel bunches of protons (about 100 billion at a time) around at almost the speed of light, more than 11,000 times per second. But it's an experiment unlikely to deliver its promised answers anywhere near as quickly as the protons are moving inside it. From the beginning, a quick turnaround of findings was never the goal. It's fundamental, rather than practical, knowledge that researchers are after, as well as a suspected new particle called the Higgs boson (dubbed "The God Particle" for its potential to answer the most basic questions about existence, such as how anything came into existence) that could have unfathomable uses far into the future. Researchers liken the pursuit of the Higgs to the 1897 discovery of the electron, an atom's...
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