‘Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it,’ said theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. I saw what he meant when I visited an exhibition of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which discovered the ‘God Particle’. I dig into ‘un-complicating’ the most expensive particle ever found and ask, as Julius Sumner-Miller did, ‘Why is it so?’
‘The Biggest Scientific Instrument Ever Built’
In Geneva, close to the French border, 10,000 scientists built a 27-kilometre underground tunnel with gigantic digital cameras that capture millions of collisions a second, connected thousands of kilometres of wire and hundreds of computers. This is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the biggest scientific instrument ever built – the biggest particle accelerator on earth and the most expensive at 10 billion Euros plus 1 billion a year in running costs.
So why was it built? What did the backers get for their money?
The LHC was built to help scientists:
- Understand how the universe grew out of the Big Bang.
- Learn what the universe is made of, how it behaves, and how to predict its future.
- Learn more about black holes by using the LHC for simulation.
- Discover (suspected) as yet undiscovered particles including the Higgs Boson.
- Reveal extra dimensions of space, beyond the three we currently see.
So how did it go?
‘The Most Expensive Particle Ever Found’
The collider smashes together trillions of protons, so that physicists can sift through the mountains of debris looking for sub-atomic particles – like the Higgs Boson.
In 2012 they found it, the so-called ‘God Particle’ – because current theory says the universe would fall apart without it.
Image source: UK SUN, in an article that says: ‘photos taken above CERN’s Large Hadron Collider lead to wild new conspiracy theories …’ one of these was that Geneva would be sucked into a dark hole in space.
That’s all they found in 10 years, making the Higgs Boson the most expensive particle ever found.
How would you sell such a grandiose project to your board? I can’t imagine getting away with this marketing other technologies. In the LHC’s case, the ‘board’ comprises the governments of 21 member countries of CERN, the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, a somewhat larger version of our ANSTO.
Fast forward to 2019, and the physicists are asking for many more billions of Euros since they need more advanced hardware to find more new particles. Just before Christmas 2018, they shut down the Large Hadron Collider to prepare for a major hardware upgrade that will transform the LHC into a High Luminosity collider by the end of 2023 to early 2024.
CERN says: ‘ … it will allow us to continue our measurements of the particles predicted by the Standard Model, the theoretical model of particles and forces, and to identify any discrepancies between the experimental results and the theory. It will also allow us to verify if other particles exist at the LHC energy scale. Their existence might resolve some of the outstanding puzzles of contemporary physics, such as the presence of the enigmatic dark matter.
Might an Aussie technology company need a bit more convincing?
All Show, No Tell
In 2016, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney borrowed the Large Hadron Collider exhibition from the London Science Museum.
The space was loaded with pictures of the LHC and its astonishing technology, the immense electronics and huge electric currents needed to accelerate particles to near light speed, and then bend them and steer them toward high-speed, high-energy collisions.
There was also a dramatisation of the control room of the LHC on the big video screen, showing researchers talking about how they found the Higgs Boson – the exciting ‘unblinding’, the discovery of the particle that Professor Higgs from Edinburgh had predicted the existence of 60 years ago.
A young female scientist recalled how she had to present the breakthrough to an astonished world, after several sleepless nights. I listened with great anticipation, but must’ve missed some vital piece in the puzzle. My companion looked perplexed; he’d missed it, too.
A little later, we happened upon a reconstruction of the sleepless young researcher’s office, and here at last we saw the ‘unblinding’: a small blip on a graph. We looked at each other in again and shook our heads.
We wondered how the physicists managed to persuade so many governments to contribute 10 billion Euros to the discovery of a particle they couldn’t even see, let alone understand its function. Might Aussie Tech companies be a bit more sceptical?
Perhaps they were persuaded by Stephen Hawking who said the collider would allow scientists to recreate conditions similar to those after the Big Bang, and added that it was vital for the project to go ahead ‘if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out.’
Particle physics at this level is a long term adventure, as well as a technological challenge without equal. The reason why the LHC was built 100m underground is that the electric currents run up to 12,000 Amperes.
That makes superconductors essential, and they work best at close to absolute zero. The LHC operates at minus 271 degrees Celsius, cooled by helium gas. At this temperature, the ring contracts by 30m. That’s just one of the unique opportunities that physicists faced.
Shining a Light on Darkness
The challenge for particle physics is discovering the order of the universe, its dimensions and its workings. This 12-minute TED talk by physicist Harry Cliff, delivered in plain English, makes clear the yawning gaps in our current knowledge.
Dr Cliff says that 95% of the universe is pretty much a mystery to physicists.
He says we understand the 5% that is made up of atoms; the rest is divided into dark matter and dark energy (see below). Dark matter remains a complete mystery, while dark energy is thought to be responsible for the universe expanding at an ever increasing rate.
The possible existence of other dimensions has long intrigued scientists.
‘Einstein’s general theory of relativity tells us that space can expand, contract, and bend,’ CERN tells us. ‘Now if one dimension were to contract to a size smaller than an atom, it would be hidden from our view. But if we could look on a small enough scale, that hidden dimension might become visible again.’
Professor Steve Giddings speaks of a ‘supersymmetry’, a mirror universe where all known particles have partner particles with related properties that could be discovered by the LHC. He says these superpartners may also make up dark matter, and that could lead to two great discoveries being made at once. He adds, ‘If the Higgs has been detected, a completely new kind of matter has been discovered.’ More here & here.
Late in 2015, another small blip was found on a graph of analysed data.
The New Scientist reported that researchers thought it might have been ‘the first sign of a particle 800 times heavier than a proton that could fit the predictions of supersymmetry. A flood of more than 500 theory papers followed in an attempt to explain the phenomenon but, after adding the data collected at the LHC in 2016, the blip went away. The 2015 signal was just noise after all.
After the Higgs Boson was discovered, the LHC received a massive upgrade that took 2 years.
It went back to work in 2015 with its energy levels doubled. Physicists could now shoot two beams each containing around 273,600 billion protons through the collider in opposite directions, causing a billion collisions a second at near light speeds, with a joint energy level of 13 TeV.
A TeraelectronVolt is about the level of energy generated by a flying mosquito, but bear in mind that a mosquito is the size of a car compared to a proton. In other words, 13 TeV is a huge amount of kinetic energy for a subatomic particle.
Observationdeck tells us that CERN put out a 5 minute video explaining the upgrade they just completed, and were planning high-luminosity upgrades that ‘will transform the LHC into a facility for precision studies’ over the next decade. The huge detectors, the gigantic digital cameras that snapshot millions of collisions every second, also received massive upgrades.
The ATLAS detector
The next phase of development is already mapped out, and proposes the construction of a new proton-proton collider that can reach collision energies of 100 trillion electron volts. ‘This would be a discovery machine,’ CERN tells us, ‘capable of creating a huge range of new particles that physicists suspect may lie beyond the reach of the LHC.’
This ‘Future Circular Collider’ (FCC) is a gigantic circular tunnel of 100km length that could start working as early as 2040 and replace the current LHC.
What’s the Payback?
CERN says its particle accelerators and detectors have applications in everyday life.
‘Invented as tools for research, there are thousands of particle accelerators in operation in the world today … the vast majority in applications ranging from medical diagnosis and therapy to computer chip manufacture.’
CERN adds that electronic particle detection techniques have revolutionized medical imaging.
Detectors invented at CERN in the late sixties allowed X-ray images to be made using a fraction of the dose required by photographic methods. Crystals developed at CERN in the 1980s are now used in PET scanners, and the latest detector technology will see PET and MRI imaging techniques combined in a single device. With a bit of luck, the High-Luminosity LHC will also throw some light on the dark matter in our universe that is still such a profound mystery.
I think I’ll contact CERN about how to ‘un-complicate’ the benefits of the next ‘unblinding’. Looks like a marketing opportunity of astronomical scale.