As poet-in-residence at Cardiff astronomy department, I want to understand the sub-atomic science and the people behind the world's largest particle colliderby Gwyneth Lewis / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
I am probably the only person to look round a particle accelerator in two-inch peep-toe sandals.
It was my first visit to Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), and I had come to Geneva to see the world’s largest particle collider as it prepares to go live. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a circular tunnel built 100 metres under the suburbs of Geneva, overlooked by the Jura mountains, a limestone wave about to break on the valley below. Soon, this 27km-long tunnel will be used to fire two beams of protons at each other, reaching 99.999999 per cent the speed of light. The beams will create up to 600m collisions per second and create showers of new particles, some of which have not existed since the big bang. Detectors will record their tracks as they smash off each other. It is hoped that, among other things, this will prove the existence of the Higgs boson, an entirely theoretical entity.
The Higgs particle matters hugely to physicists because it might explain why bodies have mass and open a window on the earliest moments of the universe. It became a kind of holy grail for experimental physics after it was christened the “God particle” by Leon Lederman in 1994. It is believed that a Higgs-like mechanism could have played an important role in the early universe, contributing to the structure of the world we see today.
The LHC makes sensational headlines: “Is this the answer to God, the universe and all that?” (Guardian, August 2004). And the experiment kindles some basic fears about science: “Killer plasma ready to devour the earth” was the headline to an article by a physicist (Telegraph, September 2001) speculating that a particle collider such as the LHC could produce an exotic particle called a “strangelet,” which “would eat our planet from the inside out… killing us all in the process.”
A common misconception about the LHC is that its colliding beams risk creating a black hole. Black holes happen when stars with diameters hundreds of times that of the earth collapse. Some of the densities to be created at the LHC are similar, but with infinitesimal pieces of matter—fragments of protons. In any case, cosmic rays have been hitting the earth for millions of years at higher energies than those to be produced by the LHC without leading to a catastrophe.