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Accelerating Into The Future

Birds eye view of Large Hadron Collider


Ritchie Patterson

Ritchie Patterson

Two years from now, the next major particle accelerator will collide beams for the first time. It will collide bunches of protons head-on. Each bunch contains 100 trillion protons, each with seven trillion electron volts of energy. The accelerator will carry 300 billion joules of energy—roughly equivalent to the kinetic energy of a naval destroyer moving at 30 knots—and the collisions will be seven times more forceful than those at Fermilab, home of the current record-holding accelerator. The accelerator will be able to produce particles that are so heavy that they have not existed since moments after the Big Bang. It will be able to scrutinize distances as small as 10-19 meters—a distance as much smaller than an atom as an atom is smaller than a basketball. Dubbed the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, this accelerator is located in Geneva, Switzerland, and Cornell scientists will be present at its opening.

Finding the Higgs

What might the LHC discover? Current data and theories of particles and forces give some hints. It might discover a particle called the Higgs, which may permeate the universe, making a kind of cosmic sludge. Physicists believe that heavy particles are heavy because they slog through this sludge with difficulty, while light ones are light because they slip through unimpeded. By giving mass to the particles that drive the reactions in the sun, the Higgs is responsible for slowing the sun’s burn, allowing it to provide a steady light over billions of years, rather than going up in a brief burst long before the earth was born.

Most physicists expect the LHC to find more. Data from past accelerators imply that the Higgs itself must be relatively light, within reach of the LHC; first principle calculations of its mass, however, give a value that is by far heavier. The discrepancy can be resolved only if there are new forms of matter that differ from those we now know. The odds are good that these new particles are light enough to be within reach of the LHC.

New Discoveries Bring More Questions

The LHC has the chance to make groundbreaking discoveries, but these new discoveries will very likely uncover more questions. What are the properties of the Higgs particle? Is the Higgs alone, or are there several varieties, each giving mass to a different class of particles? If there is a new species of matter, what are its properties? Is it of the type predicted by string theory, or is this species perhaps a messenger from a fourth dimension of space?


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