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LHC: A dawn or dusk for tens of thousands of physicists?
September 9, 2008, 12:24 am
Filed under: physics, technology

Physics is the study the physical world and what it is made of. So what is it made of? The ancient Greeks (in their togas and brilliance) came up with, among many other things, the idea of an indivisible piece from which all other matter was made. They called it the ‘Atom’. People like Einstein did research that helped this concept become a reality at the turn of the last century.

Then, people started finding smaller parts within the atom, the concept applied to even smaller scales: an electron around a nucleus that itself was made of protons and neutrons. But the Greek’s concept of the ‘true Atom’ kept physicists searching. To delve deeper, they had to resort to what at first glance seems ridiculously brutish: smash a known particle with another and watch the pieces that fly out. Nevertheless, a large proportion of physicists have devoted the last 60 years to doing just that. A ‘smash’, however, is only as good as the ‘umph’ that each particle brings to the collision, so physicists have been making larger and larger ‘accelerators’ in order to get more energetic collisions.

Enter the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). This accelerator is able to smash particles together with up to 30 times more energy than anything ever built. In fact, it will be able to get down to scales for which we only have theories. For that reason, the tens of thousands of experimental physicists that that have devoted their careers to the LHC will be joined by the tens of thousands theorists that have for over the last 30 years developed theories that predict what everyone will see when it is up and running.

The LHC begins to turn on this Wednesday for the first time. Needless to say, it is a serious event for alot of people. Decade old theories will soon triumph or be tossed.

The human element is interesting here. Being the skeptics that they are, the community has prepared itself for failure. Research beyond the LHC abounds. However, what if the soon-to-be-tested theories are right? Plans for any new accelerators may be axed for lack of need. That’s a lot of people out of work.

That’s science.

Tune in this Wednesday at 9am to see the fate of those CERN scientists.

For more info on LHC’s ‘first beam’, click here.

For an interactive picture explanation on how the LHC works, click here.

Postscript: So the day has come and gone as a success. The first full on interactions will be in a couple weeks; give it a couple month for good data; and until the beginning of next year for publishing results.

For Nick: For the views of some popular theoretical physicists as to what the LHC will find, see the Daily Telegraph article (Thanks Willy)


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