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Scientists Celebrate as Particle Collider Passes First Test

BY Admin  September 10, 2008 at 3:35 PM EST

Scientists in the CERN control room

“It’s a fantastic moment,” Lyn Evans, project director of the Large Hadron Collider, told the New York Times. “We can now look forward to a new era of understanding about the origins and evolution of the universe.”

In a few months — after 14 years of planning and building — the collider will be up and running at full strength. It will send beams of protons shooting around the underground track at 5 trillion electron volts, smashing into each other at 99.9999991 percent of the speed of light. The resulting collisions will mirror the conditions at the beginning of the universe, in the moments after the big bang.

Scientists don’t know exactly what will happen then, but they have a lot of ideas.

The collisions may create a previously unseen particle called a Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” that according to one theory gives other particles their mass. The collisions may produce evidence of “dark matter,” the hypothetical matter than some scientists think makes up as much as 80 percent of the universe, but has yet to be detected.

“That there are many theories means we don’t have a clue,” Pier Oddone, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago, told the New York Times. “That’s what makes it so exciting.”

Fermilab was, until Wednesday, the world’s most powerful operating accelerator — it shoots proton beams around a track at 1 million electron volts.

Many Fermilab scientists have been involved in building the new accelerator, which is part of the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) and is located beneath the Swiss-French border. A remote control room for monitoring one of the four particle detectors that sit along the LHC track has been built at Fermilab.

Wednesday’s test run was just the beginning of the powering-up process for the LHC — scientists sent several “bunches” of 100 billion protons around the track. By late fall the accelerator will be operating at full strength, sending beams of about 3000 bunches around the track at 5 million electron volts.

Then, physicists hope, it will begin to answer some of the most basic questions about the structure of the universe.

“The trick for us is to be as full of wonder as we can be — and simultaneously as skeptical as you can get,” Robert Cousins, a physics professor at the University of California Los Angeles who is working on an experiment at CERN, told the Washington Post.