World’s Largest Particle Collider Sees First Successful Smash

BY Lea Winerman  March 30, 2010 at 5:35 PM EDT

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](http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/12/091204-lhc-large-hadron-collider-higgs-boson-first-collision.html)” 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.