larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next
by Larry

April, 2010

The World's Largest and Yet Smallest Seeing Microscope

Thanks to sophisticated tools such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Expanded Very Large Array, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, humankind is getting closer to an impressive scrutiny of conditions near the beginning of the macro-universe. Coincident with this progress, via the just last month operational Large Hadron Collider (LHC), scientists are now also focusing their collective attentions on the quantum level origins of all that is, at least for our realm of existence.

The LHC is a 17-mile eliptical tunnel under the Swiss-French border, at Geneva. Great magnets installed throughout its length alter the flow of light beams so that they ultimately are made to cross, resulting in occasional particle collisions. In a recent experiment, for instance, the photon beams began their multiple 17-mile circuits in opposite directions about ten days prior to the impact. They traveled in near vacuum and with the temperature reduced to but two degrees above absolute zero, "the coldest place in the universe." When the collision occurred the energy of impact, at seven trillion electron volts, was three times the force of any previous tests of particle contacts.

simulated particle collison (public domain)

Earlier trials of the LHC had led to expensive systems failure and required many millions of dollars and months of repairs to get the Large Hadron Collider ready for last month's new attempts. It is anticipated that several years of research will be done in the run-up to the most refined LHC uses, ones which may unlock secrets of modern quantum physics or even explanations for how the universe came to be the way it is, from its earliest beginnings in a hypothetical Big Bang.

The LHC cost $10 billion to complete. The U.S. had a similar, or even superior, supercollider in the works, in Texas, but Congress later decided not to release the rest of the money, so it was scrapped after over a billion dollars had already been spent on its development.

Using the now operational Large Hadron Collider, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is thus leading the world in experiments at the frontier of physics. They photograph the photon collisions and their effects at a rate of several million images per second, much complicated software processing then being required to separate all the irrelevant data from what may make a difference in evaluating the experimental results.

Before the world's first atomic blast, scientists were not sure if it would be contained or if its chain reaction might simply expand until our entire world had exploded or perhaps been transformed into a new sun. Similarly, with the advent of routine experimentation via the LHC, some are afraid it might create black holes that would envelop Earth along with the rest of the Solar System. However, CERN researches dismiss this as not possible.

Collisions of ultra-high-speed particles in the supercollider are expected to reveal the forces at work when the universe was but trillionths of a second old and still unimaginably small. Deductions made possible about the universe's beginnings from this kind of new knowledge are equivalent then to concentrating a gargantuan microscope on the tiniest of samples of reality ever examined. How cool is that!?

Primary Source: World's Largest Atom Smasher Sets Record in First Experiments. Alexander G. Higgins in Philadelphia Daily News, March 31, 2010.

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next