11 September 2008

'Big Bang Day'

Yesterday has been designated as 'Big Bang Day' by scientist and media around the world. The reason was the official start of operations at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Research Centre CERN in Geneva.

CERN is the abbreviation of Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research), which was a provisional council for setting up the laboratory, established by eleven European governments in 1952. The acronym was retained after the provisional council was dissolved and the name changed to the current OERN - Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in 1954.

For more than fifty years now CERN has been the number one (and the world's largest) research institution for Particle Physics. It's main function is to provide the particle accelerators and other infrastructure needed for high-energy Physics research. Numerous experiments have been conducted there by international collaborations. The main site at Meyrin (photo below), a suburb of Geneva in Switzerland, also has a large computer centre containing very powerful data processing facilities, primarily for experimental data analysis. Because of the need to make them available to researchers elsewhere, CERN has historically been (and continues to be) a major world-wide networking hub and was in the early 1990s the original initiator of the world-wide web or internet (invented by CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee).

More than 10,000 scientists from many different countries are currently working for CERN on various research projects. It is a truly international institution, which is officially neither under Swiss nor French (some of the facilities are on French soil) jurisdiction. The 20 member states of OERN (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK) contribute for this year a total of 1 billion Swiss Francs (about € 664 million, US$ 1 billion) to the operational costs of CERN. Six countries from outside Europe (India, Israel, Japan, Russia, Turkey and the USA) as well as the EU Commission and UNESCO have an observer status at CERN.

From 1989 to 2000 the most advanced facility of CERN was the Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP), which was the world's largest machine of its kind and housed in a 27 km long circular tunnel (right), 100 metres underground, ranging from Geneva's airport to the Jura Mountains. In eight years of hard and highly sophisticated work the LEP was replaced by an even more powerful machine, the Large Hadron Collider.

The LHC (detail photo left), which cost over € 6 billion and took 14 years to develop, is the world's largest and most sophisticated machine ever built, as well as the largest science experiment on the planet. It is designed to smash protons together with cataclysmic force and scientists hope it will shed light on fundamental questions of Physics. Its main aim is to recreate the conditions in the seconds after the 'Big Bang' that created the Universe.

Findings from the research could revamp modern Physics and unlock secrets about the Universe and its origins. The experiments might also lead to the discovery of so far unknown forms of energy, which would not only solve the current world energy crisis and end our dependence on highly polluting fossil fuels, it could also help to develop propulsion systems that would enable us to conduct space exploration to far-away regions of the cosmos, which are not reachable with the conventional technology we have developed so far. If the kind of space flight we see in StarTrek should ever become possible, CERN and especially the LHC could provide the key knowledge for it.

Yesterday morning at precisely 9.38 am CEST (8.38 am BST) the LHC was officially switched on for the first time. Moments later the group of scientists assembled in the control room burst into spontaneous applause and shouts of joy when project leader Lyn Evans told them: "We have a beam on the LHC."
The first - clockwise - beam completed its first circuit of the underground tunnel at just before 9.30 am BST. The second - anti-clockwise - beam successfully circled the ring after 2 pm BST.

The beams have not yet been run continuously. So far, they have been stopped after just a few circuits. This evening engineers hope to inject clockwise and anti-clockwise protons again, but this time they will "close the orbit", letting the beams run continuously for a few seconds each.

CERN has not yet announced when it plans to carry out the first collisions. It is expected that low-energy collisions (like the one pictured right, which was done in the old LEP) could happen in the next few days. This will allow engineers to calibrate instruments, but will not yet produce data of scientific interest. This will come at a later stage. It is impossible to say how long it will take, but there is no doubt among scientists that the LHC will provide answers to the most fundamental question: What is mass?
That alone would bring Physics a huge step forward, and anything beyond that would be a bonus. The scientists at CERN can at this stage not say much more, but they are confident that with the help of the LHC they will be able to reshape the 21st century in yet unimaginable ways. But the first and most important step is to recreate the 'Big Bang', to see how the Universe was formed and to understand how it works.

"We will be able to see deeper into matter than ever before," said Dr. Tara Shears, a particle physicist from the University of Liverpool.
"We will be looking at what the Universe was made of billionths of a second after the 'Big Bang'. That is amazing and really fantastic."

"We know the answer to the question of our existence will be found at the LHC," added Prof. Jim Virdee, a particle physicist from Imperial College London.

The currently favoured model involves a particle called the 'Higgs boson' (named after the British scientist Dr. Peter W. Higgs) or BEH Mechanism, popularly also called the 'God Particle'. It is a hypothetical massive scalar elementary particle, predicted to exist by the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and is the only Standard Model particle not yet observed. According to the theory, particles acquire their mass through interactions with an all-pervading field carried by the 'Higgs boson'.

The latest astronomical observations suggest that ordinary matter - such as the galaxies, gas, stars and planets - makes up just 4% of the Universe. The rest is dark matter (23%) and dark energy (73%). Physicists think the LHC could provide clues about the nature of this mysterious "stuff".

"Nature can surprise us. We have to be ready to detect anything it throws at us," said Prof. Virdee.

The idea of the Large Hadron Collider emerged in the early 1980s. The project was eventually approved in 1996 with an original budget of 2.6 billion Swiss Francs. However, CERN underestimated equipment and engineering costs when it started the project, and subsequently the institution was facing a cash crisis. CERN had to borrow hundreds of millions of Euros from banks to get the LHC completed. The current price is nearly four times of what was originally envisaged.

During winter the LHC will be shut down, allowing the equipment to be fine-tuned for collisions at full energy, which are expected to take place next year.

I am no scientist, but I take an interest in the fundamental questions of this world. And though I do not understand all the details of the experiments conducted by CERN, I find them - as well as the fact that CERN exists at all - fascinating. And I share the hopes of the thousands of scientists involved that with enough effort the secrets of the Universe will eventually be revealed, for the better of all of mankind.

It is also interesting that the LHC has been built and is operated by 20 European countries, and not by the world's apparently one remaining 'super power', the USA. Ever more Americans seem to fall under the spell of fanatic religious fundamentalists who denounce evolution, science and the realities of Nature and believe in 'creationism' (or 'intelligent design'), which pretends that the world was created by 'God' in six days about 6000 years ago (as described in the Old Testament of the Bible). These people have gained a lot of political influence and power in recent years, counting among their believers many prominent Republican politicians, including George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.

In my opinion this will eventually destroy the USA and diminish America's power and influence in the world. It is already evident that the USA are by far not as organised and powerful as they pretend to be. Their health care, education, social security and housing are in disarray, their banks and financial institutions are collapsing one after another, and crime of all sorts rules in all parts of the USA (with more than 2 million people - out of 300 million - in prisons), right from the White House down to the last slum.
Since America does no longer produce enough people with high academic, scientific and technical qualifications, the USA are for the past 20 years already dependent on qualified immigrants from all over the world, even to maintain the status quo of research, science and technology. Sooner or later this brain drain will dry up, and the consequence of that will be stagnation, followed by rapid decline.
The only kind of power the USA still have is the brute force of their military. And that is already shrinking as well, since George W. Bush created two wars they will never be able to win. Thus the strength and morale of the armed forces is undermined and will eventually collapse like the housing market and the financial institutions.

Meanwhile Europe has created the greatest scientific institution in history, and with the LHC the largest scientific experiment ever attempted by mankind. I am very happy to have the privilege of living in Europe, which will in future stand strong beside the coming 'super powers' China and India. If the LHC will indeed provide the answers CERN scientists expect to find, Europe could even - once again - become the dominant force on the planet. This time - hopefully - as leaders in philosophy, science and technology rather than as colonialists.

The Emerald Islander


P.S. I did start this entry already yesterday, but due to work commitments I had no time to finish it. I hope you don't mind that it is posted one day after the event, and hope you will find it still interesting and worth reading.

1 comment:

GAYATHRI said...

thanks for this interesting informations................

With regards
gayathri(india)

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