this wednesday, september 10, 2008, is an exciting day, as the large hadron collider (LHC) at CERN in geneva, switzerland will be run to its full capacity for the first time! some are calling it beam day, while others prefer big bang day. call it what you want, it's certain that people from all around the world are on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the potential results of this experiment! some are so excited, that they've created an LHC rap...
CERN Rap from Will Barras on Vimeo.
the LHC is a huge particle accelerator which will generate beams of protons and collide them into each at great speeds in order to create very high energies, and to see what resulting particles they can detect! protons are particles that fit under the more general heading of hadrons. hadrons are atomic particles made up of smaller particles called quarks. protons are made up of 3 quarks: 2 ‘up’ quarks and 1 ‘down’ quark. protons are advantageous to use for the LHC because they have an electric charge (positive), which allows them to be steered around quite controllably by large magnets! you start with hydrogen atoms (hydrogen is one proton with one electron swooping around it), strip off the electrons so you only have protons left, then accelerate the protons with gigantic magnets and slam them into each other! fun stuff!
we want to look at such high energies, because other places in the universe have really high energies. for example, the centers of stars are incredibly energetic. we can study them pretty well by matching our theories to what light and other particles come out of stars, but we cannot generate similar energies on earth.
the LHC experiment will create energies 7 times higher than any previous experiments on earth, and will attempt to answer deeper questions about the nature of the material we find in the universe. like what is gravity? what happened in the big bang? what happened just after the big bang, but before the cosmic microwave background radiation was emitted? why do some particles have mass, but not all particles? what the heck is dark matter?
and please, please don't worry.... the LHC will NOT destroy the planet!!!
here's a visually pleasing and informative tour of the LHC by dr. brian cox:
of course xkcd has a great comic about the big day:
you can also check out an interactive game at sciencemuseum.org.uk explaining how the large hadron collider experiment thinks it could detect the higgs boson - HERE.
even with all this exciting attention, dont expect definitive results to cover the front pages of world newspapers within 24 hours of wednesday's experiment. once data is collected, it will take at least a month to analyze and double check all the details. it took many many many years to produce this most complicated machinery, let's have collective patience to allow scientists to properly reduce the data and determine reliable results!!!
UPDATE: for more about the safety and perceived potential hazards of LHC, go HERE and/or read the full analysis from the LHC Safety Assessment Group: HERE.