The biggest experiment ever conceived by mankind was powered up today (Wednesday morning, GMT) and successfully circulated the first beam of protons. This is the first step toward LHC particles attaining relativistic velocities, completing 11,000 laps of the 27 km (17 mile) Large Hadron Collider (LHC) per second. This incredible feat of accelerator engineering is unparalleled, eventually allowing two counter-rotating beams of particles to be focused and collided within scales previously unimaginable. It is hoped the LHC will accelerate particles to such high energies that 14 TeV collisions will be possible by 2010, possibly revealing undiscovered particles, including the much sought-after Higgs Boson.
Although today is a hugely significant time for science (and a historic one for mankind), the first collisions will take place in October; today is a “dry run,” allowing the protons to circulate one-way. According to sources, today’s protons were accelerated around the instrument without issue, prompting LHC engineers to cheer when it was confirmed everything was on track…
This has become the most anticipated physics experiment ever built. After two years of delays and overspending, the men and women based in CERN, near Geneva in Switzerland, were ecstatic with joy when news came in about the first successful circulation. The whole world was eagerly watching CERN, setting the Internet alight with details and speculation about this momentous occasion. Scanning through the news websites, this is the first time I have ever witnessed a physics experiment grabbing all the headlines.
Admittedly, with a £5bn pricetag, it is the biggest and most expensive piece of lab kit ever conceived, but this day has united the world, regardless of nationality or belief, as we realise this experiment may revolutionize how we view the Universe forever.
The very first particles were actually injected into the 1000 aligned accelerator magnets back in August, but they were not allowed to complete a circuit. However, today sees the first particle beam make it all the way around, meaning that all the supercooled magnets, segments, detectors and synchronous operations are working as they should.
The LHC scientists were on the lookout for potential problems however. “There are on the order of 2,000 magnetic circuits in the machine. This means there are 2,000 power supplies which generate the current which flows in the coils of the magnets,” said Steve Myers, head of the accelerator and beam department. Should any of these not work correctly, fail-safes would kick in, thereby stopping the experiment. A rather obvious problem that could also have arisen was a blockage in the beam pipe (after all, this is a long, precise ring of pipe; should a grain of debris have fallen inside, the proton beam may have been disrupted).
But… this first proton circulation appears to have performed perfectly.
Now physicists must turn their attention toward the first particle collisions set for the end of October. As highlighted by Jim Virdee, a particle physicist at Imperial College London, as we are probing so far beyond what we have achieved in any previous particle accelerator, the states of matter generated may not be predicted. “Nature can surprise us… we have to be ready to detect anything it throws at us,” he said.
LHC physicists hope to find evidence for the Higgs particle (i.e. the carrier of the “Higgs Field,” or the field that gives stuff mass), but they also want to try to understand where 97% of the mass of the Universe comes from. Dark energy and dark matter, containing the mass that makes up the majority of our Universe, have yet to be characterised, much less understood. There is the possibility that “dark particles” may be generated, so physicists will need to be at the top of their game to understand what they need to be looking for.
NOTE: Before you get too excited about the departure of the Wagner/Rossler lawsuits, copious blog posts by JTankers and panicking doomsayers, unfortunately we still have a few more weeks of that nonsense until the first particle collisions on October 21st. So, big LHC party on the night of the 21st and early hours of the 22nd anybody?