SUPERCOLLIDER -- March 30, 2010 at 5:35 PM EDT
World's Largest Particle Collider Sees First Successful Smash
Scientists in Geneva fired up the world's most powerful particle-smashing machine Tuesday, beginning a run that they hope will provide insight into fundamental questions about what makes up the universe.
"This opens the door to a totally new era of discovery," the project's director of research Sergio Bertolucci told news agencies. "It is a step into the unknown where we will find things we thought were there and perhaps things we didn't know existed."
It was certainly seen as a triumph for researchers who've worked for more than a decade building the Large Hadron Collider at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). The collider is intended to smash together protons and other tiny particles at previously unheard-of speeds.
Watch an animation of the collision, provided by CERN:
The resulting collisions could produce evidence of types of matter that physicists have theorized exist for decades, but have never seen. That includes "dark matter," the hypothetical substance than some scientists think makes up as much as 80 percent of the universe, and the elusive Higgs Boson particle, the so-called "God particle" scientists believe gives all other matter its weight.
The Large Hadron Collider has had problems and false starts over the past few years, including an explosion and helium leak in 2008 that caused a long delay. Today, though, the accelerator worked.
Beams of protons began circulating through the 17 miles of magnetic tubes that traverse the French-Swiss border, gathering speed, Tuesday morning. At 1:06 p.m. the beams collided, smashing into each other in a 7-trillion electron-volt collision.
In 2008, when the scientists first tested the collider by sending one beam of particles through the tubes, physicist Brian Greene explained on the NewsHour how the collider would work.
And in 2007, NOVA ScienceNow took a tour of the collider, which was then being built.
Scientists in the control room in Geneva celebrated Tuesday's achievement with whoops and cheers.
"I've been involved in [the LHC] personally for over ten years ... It's like waiting ten years for Christmas to come," David Evans, a physicist at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., told National Geographic.
And for more from the scientists involved, here's another video from the CERN press office, which captures the scene in the control room as they prepared for the first collision:
The collider is still only running at half of its maximum energy level. CERN officials say they plan to run it at 7 trillion electron-volts for 18 to 24 months. Then, they will shut it down for up to a year, preparing it to restart at its maximum 14-trillion electron-volt capacity.