Saturday, June 6, 2009

Top 10 ways the Large Hadron Collider will blow your mind


When those scientists get together to build a huge gadget, they don't mess around. The Large Hadron Collider — the world's largest machine ever — fired up for the first time at 4:28am EDT this morning (see the first test image of it above). Straddling the border of Switzerland and France, the colossal instrument also brings with it the largest concentration of scientific apparatus ever assembled, built inside a circular 16.8-mile tunnel that's buried as deep in the ground as a football field is long. Its mission is nothing less than to discover the secrets of the universe.

Using incredibly powerful magnets and super-freezing temperatures, the idea is to sling tiny particles around the tunnel at almost the speed of light. Today, they're steering protons in a stream in one direction in its first test. Next month, they'll accelerate two streams of particles in opposite directions, steering and smashing them into each other in an attempt to re-create the Big Bang. Whoa, sounds dangerous. One thing's for sure: it's about to blow our minds just thinking about it. Let us count the (10) ways:

10. Accelerates particles faster than ever. While we're not going to be racing to the nearest star in seven years anytime soon, can you believe we can actually get an object (albeit atomic-sized) to go 99.9999991% the speed of light? And for those tiny particles, time slows down for them.

9. Gives us something other than "a witch's tit" with which to compare coldness. This thing is going to get scary-cold, way down to a temperature that's more frigid than deep space: -456.25°F. It's got to be that cold so those humongous magnets can work their magic particle-steering trick. It's not a green machine, though — to keep that cooler frosty it'll use $100,000 worth of electricity every day.

8. Might find the Higgs boson. This is the so-called "God Particle," and the researchers think if they find this little sucker floating around it might help them explain exactly why things have any mass at all. And we were thinking the answer to why things have mass was, "they just do."

7. Costs almost as much as Luxembourg. Holy moley, they spent $20 billion on this thing? That's a helluva charge to find on your Visa card, but hey, a lot of countries chipped in and it's been in the works for decades. Still, the final bill is getting pretty close to the GDP of Luxembourg ($33.87 billion).

6. Might prove string theory. Some of the hundreds of smartypants scientists working on this project believe in string theory, which posits that atoms and molecules aren't particles at all, but vibrating strings that seem to be in two (or more) places at once. Sounds like a great Halloween trick.

5. Could discover a whole new group of particles. The string theorists are especially interested in finding supersymmetric particles, or sparticles, to help prove their tangled theory. So far, the other scientists think these guys are nuts, because there's no evidence of such things. Yet. This monster collider might change all that.

4. It's going to get even bigger. Plans are in the works to make this behemoth even more monstrous, and by 2012 it could be called the Super Large Hadron Collider (SLHC), giving scientists an even better chance of seeing rare particles and building on their research with the LHC.

3. Unlock secrets about dark matter and dark energy. There's something out there in the universe that's pulling galaxies around. All the stuff we can see only accounts for 4% of the total matter in the universe. But that's not even the half of it. Visible and dark matter together might only account for 25% of the universe's mass. The other three quarters? Dark energy, alleged contributor to the expansion of the universe — and we don't even know if dark energy exists yet, either. C'mon collider, we gotta know!

2. This thing sucks, big time. In fact, it contains the largest volume of a vacuum ever created by man, and it's a super-vacuum, sucking 10 times less pressure than you'd find on the moon. It contains fewer particles than the emptiest parts of the solar system — we wouldn't want any stray atoms getting in the way of those light-racing protons, now would we?

1. Might blow up the world? No way. Well, infinitesimal way. But all credible scientists say the collider poses no threat to the world, except to smash old physics theories that are incorrect. Concerns are based on fear of radiation (no danger 328 feet underground), fear of "strangelets," exotic material that can pop up enough gravity to turn the planet into a giant sucking sound (if such strangelets existed, they'd be unstable and decay in a zillionth of a second), and that most ominous one, black holes (no way, they'd be too small and unstable to do any harm). Fear, fear, fear. Get over it. Besides, if this thing destroys the world, it'll be so fast we'll never know what hit us.

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