March 31, 2010 in Nation/World

Atom smasher produces first hit

Physicists ecstatic over hadron collider’s success
Alexander G. Higgins And Seth Borenstein Associated Press
 

GENEVA – The world’s largest atom smasher threw together minuscule particles racing at unheard of speeds in conditions simulating those just after the Big Bang – a success that kick-started a multibillion-dollar experiment that could one day explain how the universe began.

Scientists cheered Tuesday’s historic crash of two proton beams, which produced three times more energy than researchers had created before and marked a milestone for the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider.

“This is a huge step toward unraveling Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 1 – what happened in the beginning,” physicist Michio Kaku told the Associated Press.

“This is a Genesis machine. It’ll help to recreate the most glorious event in the history of the universe.”

The power produced will ramp up even more in the future as scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, watch for elusive particles that have been more theorized than seen on Earth.

The consequences of finding those mysterious particles could “affect our conception of who we are in the universe,” said Kaku, co-founder of string field theory and author of the book “Physics of the Impossible.”

Physicists, usually prone to caution and nuance, tripped over themselves in superlatives praising the importance of the Large Hadron Collider and the significance of its generating regular science experiments.

“This is the Jurassic Park for particle physicists,” said Phil Schewe, with the American Institute of Physics. He called the collider a time machine. “Some of the particles they are making now or are about to make haven’t been around for 14 billion years.”

The first step in simulating the moments after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago was to produce a tiny bang. The most potent force on the tiny atomic level that man has ever created came Tuesday.

Two beams of protons were sent hurtling in opposite directions toward each other in a 17-mile tunnel below the Swiss-French border – the coldest place in the universe at slightly above absolute zero. CERN used powerful superconducting magnets to force the two beams to cross; two of the protons collided, producing 7 trillion electron volts.

It’s bizarrely both a record high and a small amount of energy.

It’s a record on the atom-by-atom basis that physicists use to measure pure energy, Schewe said. By comparison, burning wood or any other chemical reaction on an atom scale produces one electron volt. Splitting a single uranium atom in a nuclear reaction produces 1 million electron volts. This produces – on an atom-by-atom scale – 7 million times more power than a single atom in a nuclear reaction, Schewe said.

The reason this is safe has to do with the amount of particles in the collider. Tuesday’s success involved just two protons making energy, instead of pounds of uranium, Schewe said.

Kaku, a professor at City College of New York, described the amount of energy produced as less than the total energy made by two mosquitoes crashing.

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