Monday, September 15, 2008

Particle accelerator speeds into age of 'new physics'

Washington Post

Particle accelerator speeds into age of 'new physics'

MEYRIN, Switzerland - It is the biggest machine ever built. Everyone says it looks like a movie set for a corny James Bond villain. They are correct. The machine is attended by brainiacs wearing hard hats and running around on catwalks. They are looking for the answer to the question: Where does everything in the universe come from? Price tag: $8 billion plus.

The world's largest particle accelerator is buried deep in the earth beneath herds of placid dairy cows grazing on the Swiss-French border. The thing has been under construction for years, like the pyramids. Its centerpiece is a circular 17-mile tunnel that contains a pipe swaddled in supermagnets refrigerated to crazy-low temperatures, colder than deep space.

The idea is to set two beams of protons travelling in opposite directions around the tunnel, redlining at the speed of light, generating wicked energy that will mimic the cataclysmic conditions at the beginning of time, then smashing into each other in a furious re-creation of the Big Bang - this time recorded by giant digital cameras.

Last week, they fired this sucker up.

It will be months before the proton beams reach full power and produce the kinds of exotic collisions that may herald an age of "new physics." But if the machine works - this most ambitious, expensive, technologically advanced civilian scientific experiment in history - it would be a happening for humanity.

"I think we may have to rewrite our textbooks," said Fabiola Gianotti, a project leader for ATLAS, one of the four huge detectors that will record and analyze the collisions. "There must be something more than we have seen. There is something missing from the puzzle."

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