So, I'm sure that by now, everyone's heard of the Large Hadron Collider, which will smash particles together, create a black hole that will swallow up Switzerland, rip through the fabric of space-time, and destroy the universe, right? Um, sure. But what's supposed to happen? Very basically (because I don't really understand much more), the LHC will shoot beams of protons and ions at each other at velocities approaching the speed of light, so that these particles (or hadrons) will collide. And then they sit back and see what happens. Also, the LHC is the world's largest machine. Therefore: Large Hadron Collider. Not too creative with naming, those scientist types.
Okay, so what's the point? Well, first, let's go over some cosmology. Scientists have a "standard model" of our universe, detailing how it works and it's actual structure. But there are some holes and unproven aspects because, well, they made it up. So, there are 4 forces in the universe: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity. The "standard model" currently only accounts for 3 of the 4 forces - gravity is the odd one out. Another gaping hole in the model is the lack of a GUT or "Grand Unifying Theory." Einstein's Theory of Relativity tells us how extremely large things work, and quantum mechanics tells us how extremely small things work, but there's no theory that unifies the two. There are some unproven aspects of the standard model that may help astronomers and physicists move closer to a GUT and incorporate gravity into this model. Here're three biggies:
- The Higgs boson particle. This is a hypothetical particle which they expect to have a corresponding mediating force that would explain why some particles have mass and others don't (such as neutrinos).
- Antimatter. "In the beginning", when matter and energy separated, particles of matter and antimatter destroyed each other. So, it turns out, there was more matter than antimatter, fortunately for us, and particle physicists want to know why.
- Dark Matter and Dark Energy. The matter that astronomers can detect in the universe only accounts for about 4% of what's actually there, according to relatively. At best estimate, 75% of what's out there is thought to be dark energy, which is a hypothetical force which contributes to the expansion of the universe. The other 21% being dark matter, which would be matter we can't detect. Since we can't see it, we call it "dark" (yet another creative name).
So by smashing these hadrons together, physicists think that they'll be mimicking conditions of matter and energy at the "start" of the universe. They're basically going to turn the thing on (eventually, but we'll get to that later) and see what happens. They hope to see some evidence of the Higgs boson particle; actually creating and observing its behavior would be a major breakthrough. They also hope to create and observe antimatter during the events created by the LHC, and determine what might account for that minuscule difference in the amounts of matter and antimatter when the universe began. As for the dark stuff, they're looking for evidence of supersymmetry. Supersymmetry posits that particles don't come in pairs of particle/anti-particle (electron/positron), but in that each particle also has a "superpartner" which has it's own counterpart; thus making particles come in families of four. Potentially, these superpartners and their counterparts could explain dark matter, and maybe even help fit gravity into the standard model of the universe (don't ask me how on that one).
And then there's the other stuff that could happen. Other stuff? Well, for example, some think/hope that the events of the LHC will provide evidence for other dimensions (not alternate, but additional). We're used to three spatial dimensions and one temporal, but one version of string theory only works if there are at least ELEVEN dimensions to account for. Yeah, eleven. String theory says, basically, that the fundamental building block of the universe is a string, not a particle, and the way these strings vibrate makes them do different things. String theory is one candidate for a GUT, but there is no evidence that these strings actually exist and no way to test for them... yet.
But really, no one knows what will happen when they start up the LHC, because there's never been a particle accelerator that has come close to what it can do. But, as they say on The Big Bang Theory, "contrary results are still results". And contrary results can be just as exciting, or even more exciting, than getting the results you expected (see: Mythbusters).
Okay, cool. So when will this thing get going? Well, there have been a few setbacks. CERN first tried to bring the LHC online in March 2007, aaaand a magnet failed. When this magnet was designed, the enormous stresses of the LHC were not taken into account, but it was made as thin as possible for insulation purposes. In September 2008, an electrical fault between the magnets caused an arc, which compromised the integrity of the liquid helium containment, thus causing a leak of 6 tons of liquid helium which flooded the surrounding vacuum layer and filled the particle tubes with soot. In July 2009, two vacuum leaks were identified, which further delayed the start of operations to this month, November 2009. And just over a week ago, someone mistook the LCH for a toaster. Yep, a small piece of baguette was dropped into the LCH causing it to overheat.
Believe it or not, a couple prominent physicists have suggested that the LCH is is sabotaging itself from the future. I'm. Not. Kidding. According to the New York Times, these guys (Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya) are claiming that the Higgs boson particle is "abhorrent to nature", meaning that if it were to be created in the future, it would start a reverse temporal loop (I'm not explaining that one - we all watch Star Trek) that would stop it from being created in the first place. For serious, dudes?
At any rate, just yesterday, CERN released a bulletin which stated that, "if all goes well" (insert snicker here), the particle beams should be circulating in their respective tubes just over a week from now, and the first low-energy collisions should follow soon after. phew.
Want to know more? Well, there's the LHC page at CERN but I find it confusing and a little hard to navigate, you could always do a Google news search but that's a lot of sifting, and don't really trust Wikipedia when it comes to science. I highly recommend HowStuffWorks.com. They were an excellent resource for me in writing this, along with my vague memories of AS202 and MA471. They have so much more information over there - especially information on the LHC itself and, well, how it works. Check them out.