The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the largest atom smasher in the world. Located 300 feet below France and Switzerland, it's a 27-kilometer-long particle accelerator that collides protons and heavy lead ions. The LHC is currently conducting some of the most important high-energy physics experiments in the world.
To figure out how the LHC works and why it's such an important piece of technology, Trace Dominguez traveled to CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. At CERN, Trace spoke to Mike Lamont, the Operations Group Leader working on the LHC, who broke down the internal processes of the largest particle accelerator in the world.
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Basically, the LHC is an enormous ring containing two beams that go in opposite directions. Inside these beams are bunches of protons.
"Each bunch has about 100 billion protons each." Mike told Trace. "These bunches are about 30 centimeters long, typically about a millimeter wide, dimensions as they're going around the ring. Think about a long, thin, tapered, piece of spaghetti."
"We pass these thin hairs through each other, and we get about 30 collisions," Mike continued. "Most of the protons just miss each other and they carry on around the ring; they come back one turn later and they can do it again."
Getting the particles to hit each other is extremely difficult. According to CERN's website, "The particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing two needles 10 kilometers apart with such precision that they meet halfway."
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That's why the LHC needs to attempt these particle collisions constantly. This year their goal is to get to an almost unfathomable 800 million collisions per second.
The point of all these collisions is to discover new particles, but the trick is that scientists have to monitor these collisions very closely in order to have the slightest chance at a new discovery. They currently have several experiments set up that actually sit right on top of the LHC ring at certain collision points.
But what exactly will these new particle discoveries prove?
One thing scientists are hoping to learn from the LHC collisions is what happened during the initial seconds after the Big Bang, the theory of how the universe was created precisely 13.82 billion years ago. They're also hoping to gain a better understanding of dark matter, which scientists believe comprises nearly 85% of the mass of the universe. In other words, the matter that we experience and see through the universe makes up only 15% of the universe.
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Trace also spoke with Tulika Bose, who runs an LHC experiment called CMS, Compact Muon Solenoid. "Every twenty-five nanoseconds... you have a bunch [100 billion protons] colliding with another bunch. You may have a proton here and a proton there, which has a heart. What we call 'shattering a heart event,' and out of that comes a whole mess of particles," she told Trace.
Bose's experiment is kind of like tiny car crashes happening over and over again. Just like glass, metal and plastic explode from a car in a collision, kaons, pions and muons explode from proton collisions. By measuring the curve of the particles in the explosion, Bose is able to calculate their velocity and momentum.
While the practical benefits from current LHC experiments are as of yet unknown, research in high-energy physics at the LHC and beyond have yielded some amazing pieces of modern technology. Past research and experiments have helped develop more advanced cancer therapies, cleaner manufacturing processes, advancements in medical imaging like MRIs and CAT scans, and even the thing you're reading this on right now: a web page. The web page was first developed at CERN in order to more easily share large data sets between internationally located physicists. Well done, guys.
By creating millions of particle collisions every second, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider all have a common goal in mind. They want to break down the world into its simplest form in order to better understand life as we know it.
-- Molly Fosco
CERN: CERN Overview Animation
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