Is the U.S. slipping in physics?
Published: Thursday, September 11, 2008 - 12:05pm
Wednesday, Sept. 10, was a historic day. That was when the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator designed to recreate conditions immediately after the Big Bang on the microscale, shot its first beam of protons along a 17-mile long underground track. The goal of the project is to better understand the origins of the universe.
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has been working on the project for nearly 10 years, at a cost of more than 9 billion Euros. Some feared that we might die, but instead at 2:30 a.m. CST we witnessed the beginning of the most powerful physics experiment known to humankind!
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is located on the border between France and Switzerland and will speed particles along the 17-mile ring in opposite directions. When the particles crash into each other at specific points, they will create energy. Scientists will use four detectors to gather data to better understand the laws of physics and the evolution of life. Each of the detectors serves a different a purpose:
- Atlas will look for new physics principles and the origins of mass.
- The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) will look for Higgs Boson, the “God Particle” and the nature of dark matter.
- Alice will look for quark-gluon plasma, a form of matter.
- The Large Hadron Collider beauty (LHCb) will look for anti-matter, present after the Big Bang (but no more).
Scientists had to develop more efficient ways to process and share data by developing “the Grid,” a network that will make Internet connections up to 10,000 times faster than a normal broadband connection. This innovation will be useful to the general public, as well as CERN scientists.
On Wednesday, scientists passed a proton beam around the LHC to look for potential problems. The real fun will begin in October, when scientists fling the particles in opposite directions to crash into each other, in hope of discovering new particles and possibly even a black hole (that some fear could kill us). This experiment has the potential to help us understand fundamental scientific principles and understand our origins.
At one point, the U.S. even explored this project. President Reagan was an initial supporter of a "Big Bang Experiment," but the idea was soon dropped due to Congress' reluctance to fund the experiment.
The U.S. has given some funding to the CERN experiment (more than $500 million), including funding key components of the LHC and two particle accelerators (Atlas and CMS).
The University of Illinois is even involved in this project. U of I scientists will help to build the Atlas Tile Calorimeter, which measures the energy of particles.
Some have argued that the U.S. is falling behind in physics because this project is European, not American. I do not agree. Though CERN is a European commission, it is part of a global basic science community, of which the U.S. is a part. What we need is more global cooperation on scientific issues to solve problems and not arguments over where equipment is based and who is more entitled to it. These large-scale science projects are public goods that should be supported by all countries with financial resources.
For further reading: BBC LHC Guide