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Scientists Celebrate Breakthrough With Particle Collider

In an effort to understand some of the basic tenets of physics, scientists and engineers fired a beam of protons around a 17-mile tunnel Wednesday -- a successful first run for the world's most powerful particle accelerator. Brian Greene, host of the PBS series "Elegant Universe," explains the feat.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And to Jeffrey Brown.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, we just saw the cheering for success and the animation of what's going on at the Large Hadron Collider, as it's called.

    To help us understand what it all means, we turn to Brian Greene, professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University, and host of the PBS series "The Elegant Universe." His most recent book is "Icarus at the Edge of Time," a look at the science of black holes.

    Well, before you tell us how it works, maybe it will help to explain what scientists are trying to do. What is this all about?

    BRIAN GREENE, Professor of Mathematics and Physics, Columbia University: Well, our goal is to figure out the fundamental particles that make up everything in the universe and the fundamental forces by which they interact.

    So, one powerful way to do that is to slam particles together at fantastically high speeds and examine the debris, examine the behavior of the debris. And, in that data, we hope to gain insights into these fundamental questions about the universe.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What — what kind of questions?

  • BRIAN GREENE:

    There are many of them. A question that we have struggled with for a long time is, what gives particles the mass that they have?

    And a proposal was put forward, oh, about 40 years ago, something called the Higgs field. The idea is, we are immersed in a field, much like the electromagnetic fields that make up cell phones and radio broadcasts. And, as particles try to go through the field, this field acts like a molasses that creates a drag force on the particles that gives them the mass that we associate with them.

    Now, if this is true, in these collisions, we should be able to chip a little piece of this field off as a little particle, a Higgs particle. And if we find that particle, this will be a moment for celebration in the physics community worldwide.

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