November 28, 2008

"THE" Atom Smasher

The Large Hadron Collider or LHC created quite a big wave when the first proton beams were circulated successfully on the 10th September 2008. Scientists and people in the science community were joyous while religious heads decried this breakthrough in science claiming it to be anti-religious. And as usual there is always a faction of people clinging on to superstitious beliefs claiming the world is going to end when remarkable breakthroughs like this happen. While a well circulated rumor that the experiments in the LHC will cause black holes that will swallow up the earth struck fear at the heart of many others. (It is true that black holes WILL be created, but they are unstable and will disintegrate immediately). Leaving all these mixed human emotions behind, let’s see what the LHC is all about.

The Large Hadron Collider is not the first of its kind of atom smasher (or particle accelerator). We have linear particle accelerators like Stanford Linear Accelerator, SLAC, which is 3 km (2 miles) long or cyclic particle accelerators called cyclotrons like the one invented by Ernest O. Lawrence.

Then what is so special about the LHC?

100 meters below ground with a circumference of 27 kilometer, the 8 Billion Dollar beast of a machine called the Large Hadron Collider is the most ambitious and the most powerful accelerator of the present day world.The LHC steers proton beams upto 99.99% the speed of light using super magnets cooled upto -271.25 degrees Celsius. The LHC is a more superior version of a normal particle accelerator like the way an electron microscope is to a normal microscope. A particle accelerator is used to accelerate particles to high speed and and make them collide. The ensuing debris is then studied to understand the fundamental building block of particles. The LHC is special in the sense that it is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built and can accelerate particles to very high speed(upto 99.99% of the speed of light) and energy levels. Moreover, the LHC will be just powerful enough to detect even the faintest of particles and energy fields (gravitons and dark energy being one of them. Hopefully!)while other particle accelerators don't have the sufficient energy levels to do the same.

What purpose does the LHC serve?

There are many riddles and mysteries regarding the universe and its creation. Scientists hope to solve these mysteries using the LHC. Some of the many riddles are given below.

The Big Bang Riddles: One of the most widely accepted theories for the creation of the universe is the Big Bang Theory. Though widely accepted, the theory is not devoid of ambiguities. While it explains some of the questions about the universe as to why is the universe expanding and not static, the theory in itself leads to a number of other riddles. Such as why is the universe homogeneous, what is the shape of space-time, if the universe is expanding and not static, why is the cosmological constant* (denoted by the Greek sign Lambda)proposed by Einstein not zero, what exists outside the universe and many other such questions. Scientists hope to re-create some of the initial moments of the Big Bang in hopes of finding clues as to why the universe is the way it is today. And they are proposing to use the LHC for this purpose.

The Anti-Matter Problem: If the universe was created from a singularity why is there more matter than anti-matter? Fortunately for us, certain conditions during the initial moments of the universe helped create more matter than anti-matter. What are those conditions? What helped create those conditions? Though a part of the Big Bang riddle, scientists hope to resolve this problem by observing (or creating) anti-matter during LHC events.

The God Particle: the Higgs Boson is a hypothetical particle considered to be the reason or in precise terms “the interacting particle” (the concept might sound somewhat similar to graviton, the interacting particle necessary for gravity, well, it is!) why matter has mass. The Higgs Mechanism states that there might be an interacting particle and a corresponding mediating force that explains why matter has mass. Since mass is everything (without which there will be “nothing”) they call this particle the God Particle. Scientists hope to find some traces of the Higgs Bosons in the LHC.

Theory of Quantum Gravity: Scientists are hoping to achieve a solution for the Theory of Everything or the Grand Unification Theory or the Theory of Quantum Gravity. On one hand we have the General Theory of Relativity that explains space-time continuum and one of the fundamental forces of nature: gravity. And on the other, we have a Quantum theory that explains the other three forces, namely the electromagnetic force, the weak force and the strong force. While these two theories are consistent in their own way, when scientists try to unify them, they end up with nothing but gibberish. Why is gravity such a pain? The fact that it is 1040 times weaker than electromagnetic force makes it hard to detect. And if you can’t see something, then naturally, it also becomes impossible to understand its behavior. Scientists are hoping that the LHC might be just powerful enough to detect some traces of gravity or gravitons that are the interacting particles with the necessary mediating force for gravity. In short, scientists are trying to realize their long lost dream for a theory of everything.

Dark Matter: Our understanding of the universe reveals that what we see accounts for only 4 percent of all the matter that exist. Scientists predict that there should be “something” more to the universe than what we can observe. And this so called something is dark matter. Using indirect methods like observing the motion of celestial bodies and X-rays detection, scientists have assumed the existence of dark matter and an accompanying force called the dark energy. Experts hope that events in the LHC might support this theory or otherwise lead to an alternative theory.

Apart from this, there are a slew of theories scientists hope to confirm like the string theory that proposes that the universe is not confined to 3 dimensional Euclidian spaces, but is multidimensional and that the fundamental building block of the universe is not particle but strings. Then we have a theory called super symmetry which can be added to the list of theories experts hope to confirm.

The best part (for those who are interested in science) is that the list doesn’t end here. Even if these theories are confirmed, they would in turn lead to another door with loads of other questions and mysteries waiting to be solved and so on unto a “possible infinite loop”.

Whether these mysteries will be solved or not, only time can tell. Speaking of time, this is another of the many mysteries scientists hope to solve.

And speaking of a “possible infinite loop”, I see that we have already entered into one!

*Einstein proposed the cosmological constant by making changes to his field equations in order to arrive at a the concept of a static universe. Though Hubble's observation later disproved the concept of a static universe, it did nothing to make Lambda zero! A part of general theory of relativity, Lambda still proves to be a major hurdle in the big bang theory.

References :
3."Faster than the speed of light" by Joao Mageuijo

Image Courtesy : Getty Images


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