The world’s biggest, most highly-anticipated physics experiment comes online this week, as the first beam of particles begins to circulate around a 17-mile underground racetrack that lies beneath France and Switzerland.
The $9 billion Large Hadron Collider, 20 years in the making, represents the work of at least 7,000 scientists from 60 countries, including a contingent from the Boston area that spent years, or entire careers, working on this project.
Their excitement is testimony to the importance of the mission: to recreate in an underground tunnel the conditions of the early universe, just a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. From that, they hope to fill in gaps in physics knowledge, search for hidden dimensions, and understand why particles have mass.
The collider soaks up superlatives like no other science project. But no whiz-bang insights are expected immediately, or even this year. The inaugural beam is just the critical first step in what will be years of research. So the revving up this week of the world’s largest particle accelerator will be punctuated with emotion, not eureka. “It’s the culmination of my career,” said James Bensinger, 67, a physicist from Brandeis University who has been working on the project for 15 years. “It will certainly outlive my scientific life; it very well may outlive me, period. It’s not that unusual in the human experience. The people who built cathedrals - often times their sons saw it completed. But still, they thought it was something much bigger than they were and kept it going.”
The Large Hadron Collider is operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known by its French acronym, CERN. The circular underground tunnel, in which the particle beams ramp up to 99.99 percent of the speed of the light, lies more than 300 feet below the earth, at the foot of the Jura Mountains. The accelerator dwarfs its closest cousin, the Tevatron at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., and because it can reach higher energies, it will be used to search for evidence of some of the most evanescent particles.
One of physicists’ most vexing unanswered questions is: What are the origins of mass in the universe? The answer may lie in a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson first predicted in 1964, that has been bugging scientists for decades. The elusive particle, also called the “God particle,” was inserted into scientific theory to make physicists’ models work, but it has never been seen.
“For my entire career, since I got my PhD at Cornell in the early 70s, there’s been something called the standard model that has explained all the phenomena that has been observed in high energy physics basically through my entire my career,” said Frank Taylor, an MIT senior research scientist. “But there’s one part that’s missing, so in a sense the program would hopefully be the fulfillment of this one missing piece of the exploration.”
Taylor, Bensinger, and other Boston-area scientists collaborated on building a detector that will be used within the collider to detect muons, particles that are signatures of the elusive particles expected to be created in the collisions.