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Cern experiment

CERN fires up new atom smasher to near Big Bang

posted: 2 DAYS 11 HOURS AGO

GENEVA -It has been called an Alice in Wonderland investigation into the makeup of the universe — or dangerous tampering with nature that could spell doomsday.
Whatever the case, the most powerful atom-smasher ever built comes online Wednesday, eagerly anticipated by scientists worldwide who have awaited this moment for two decades.
The multibillion-dollar Large Hadron Collider will explore the tiniest particles and come ever closer to re-enacting the big bang, the theory that a colossal explosion created the universe.
The machine at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, promises scientists a closer look at the makeup of matter, filling in gaps in knowledge or possibly reshaping theories.
The first beams of protons will be fired around the 17-mile tunnel to test the controlling strength of the world's largest superconducting magnets. It will still be about a month before beams traveling in opposite directions are brought together in collisions that some skeptics fear could create micro "black holes" and endanger the planet.
The project has attracted researchers of 80 nationalities, some 1,200 of them from the United States, which contributed $531 million of the project's price tag of nearly $4 billion.
"This only happens once a generation," said Katie Yurkewicz, spokeswoman for the U.S. contingent at the CERN project. "People are certainly very excited."
The collider at Fermilab outside Chicago could beat CERN to some discoveries, but the Geneva equipment, generating seven times more energy than Fermilab, will give it big advantages.
The CERN collider is designed to push the proton beam close to the speed of light, whizzing 11,000 times a second around the tunnel 150 to 500 feet under the bucolic countryside on the French-Swiss border.
Once the beam is successfully fired counterclockwise, a clockwise test will follow. Then the scientists will aim the beams at each other so that protons collide, shattering into fragments and releasing energy under the gaze of detectors filling cathedral-sized caverns at points along the tunnel.
CERN dismisses the risk of micro black holes, subatomic versions of collapsed stars whose gravity is so strong they can suck in planets and other stars.
But the skeptics have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Hawaii and in the European Court of Human Rights to stop the project. They unsuccessfully mounted a similar action in 1999 to block the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state.
CERN's collider has been under construction since 2003, financed mostly by its 20 European member states. The United States and Japan are major contributors with observer status in CERN.
Scientists started colliding subatomic particles decades ago. As the machines grew more powerful, the experiments revealed that protons and neutrons — previously thought to be the smallest components of an atom — were made of still smaller quarks and gluons.
CERN hopes to recreate conditions in the laboratory a split-second after the big bang, teaching them more about "dark matter," antimatter and possibly hidden dimensions of space and time.
Meanwhile, scientists have found innovative ways to explain the concept in layman's terms.
The team working on one of the four major installations in the tunnel — the ALICE, or "A Large Ion Collider Experiment" — produced a comic book featuring Carlo the physicist and a girl called Alice to explain the machine's investigation of matter a split second after the Big Bang.
"We create mini Big Bangs by bumping two nuclei into each other," Carlo explains to Alice, who has just followed a rabbit down one of the hole-like shafts at CERN.
"This releases an enormous amount of energy that liberates thousands of quarks and gluons normally imprisoned inside the nucleus. Quarks and gluons then form a kind of thick soup that we call the quark-gluon plasma."
The soup cools quickly and the quarks and gluons stick together to form protons and neutrons, the building blocks of matter.
That will enable scientists to look for still missing pieces to the puzzle — or lead to the formulation of a new theory on the makeup of matter.
Kate McAlpine, 23, a Michigan State University graduate at CERN, has produced the Large Hadron Rap, a video clip that has attracted more than a million views on YouTube.
"The things that it discovers will rock you in the head," McAlpine raps as she dances in the tunnel and caverns.
CERN spokesman James Gillies said the lyrics are "absolutely scientifically spot on."
"It's quite brilliant," Gillies said.

On the Net:
CERN: http://www.cern.ch
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory: http://www.fnal.gov
The U.S. at the LHC: http://www.uslhc.us/
Large Hadron Rap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?vf6aU-wFSqt0
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

Discovery or doom? Collider stirs debate

Chapter 2: Cutting through the hype over black holes and future benefits

By Alan Boyle
Science editor
updated 3:03 p.m. CT, Mon., Sept. 8, 2008

Will the Large Hadron Collider destroy the world, or help the world?

As the atom-smasher at Europe's CERN research center is readied for its official startup near Geneva on Wednesday, researchers might wish that the general public was captivated by the quest for the Higgs boson, the search for supersymmetric particles and even the evidence for extra dimensions.

But if the feedback so far is any guide, the real headline-grabber is the claim that the world's most powerful particle-smasher could create microscopic black holes that some fear would gobble up the planet.

The black-hole scenario is even getting its day in court: Critics of the project have called for the suspension of work on the European collider until the scenario receives a more thorough safety review, filing separate legal challenges in U.S. federal court and the European Court of Human Rights.

The strange case of the planet-eating black hole serves as just one example showing how grand scientific projects can lead to a collision between science fiction and science fact. The hubbub also has led some to question why billions of dollars are being spent on a physics experiment so removed from everyday life.

Why do it?
Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at the City College of New York, acknowledged that people often ask about the practical applications of particle physics. Even if physicists figure out how a particle called the Higgs boson creates the property of mass in the universe, how will that improve life on Earth?

"Sometimes the public says, 'What's in it for Numero Uno? Am I going to get better television reception? Am I going to get better Internet reception?' Well, in some sense, yeah," he said. "All the wonders of quantum physics were learned basically from looking at atom-smasher technology."

Kaku noted that past discoveries from the world of particle physics ushered in many of the innovations we enjoy today, ranging from satellite communications and handheld media players to medical PET scanners (which put antimatter to practical use).

"But let me let you in on a secret: We physicists are not driven to do this because of better color television," he added. "That's a spin-off. We do this because we want to understand our role and our place in the universe."

About those black holes ...
The black holes that may (or may not) be generated by the Large Hadron Collider would have theoretical rather than practical applications.

If the collider's detectors turn up evidence of black holes, that would suggest that gravity is stronger on a subatomic scale than it is on the distance scales scientists have been able to measure so far. That, in turn, would support the weird idea that we live in a 10- or 11-dimensional universe, with some of the dimensions rolled up so tightly that they can't be perceived.

Big Bang collider could test theories—and nerves
Sept. 9: Could atom-smasher create a black hole capable of swallowing the Earth? NBC's Keith Miller reports.

Some theorists say the idea would explain why gravity is so much weaker than the universe's other fundamental forces — for example, why a simple magnet can match the entire Earth's gravitational force pulling on a paper clip. These theorists suggest that much of the gravitational field is "leaking out" into the extra dimensions.

"It will be extremely exciting if the LHC did produce black holes," CERN theoretical physicist John Ellis said. "OK, so some people are going to say, 'Black holes? Those big things eating up stars?' No. These are microscopic, tiny little black holes. And they’re extremely unstable. They would disappear almost as soon as they were produced."

Not everyone is convinced that the black holes would disappear. "It doesn't have to be that way," said Walter Wagner, a former radiation safety officer with a law degree who is one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. Despite a series of reassuring scientific studies, Wagner and others insist that the black holes might not fizzle out, and they fear that the mini-singularities produced by the Large Hadron Collider will fall to the center of the earth, grow larger and swallow more and more of Earth's matter.

Ellis, Kaku and a host of other physicists point out that cosmic rays in space are far more energetic than the collisions produced in the Large Hadron Collider, and do not produce the kinds of persistent black holes claimed by the critics. In the most recent report, CERN scientists rule out the globe-gobbling black holes and the other nightmares enumerated in the lawsuit, even under the most outlandish scenarios. Wagner remains unconvinced, however.

"I don't think the knowledge we are going to acquire by doing such an experiment outweighs the risk that we are taking, if we can't quantify that risk. ... We need to obtain other evidence," he said.

Strangelets, monopoles and more
Black holes aren't Wagner's only worry: He also is concerned that when the collider creates a soup of free-flying quarks, some of those quarks might recombine in a hazardous way — creating a stable, negatively charged "strangelet" that could turn everything it touches into more strangelets.

The lawsuit also suggests that magnetic monopoles — basically, magnets with only a north or a south pole, but not both — could be created in the collider and wreak havoc.

Physicists point out that such phenomena have never been seen, either in previous collider experiments or in the wide cosmos beyond Earth.

"The experiments that we will do with the LHC have been done billions of times by cosmic rays hitting the earth," Ellis said. "They're being done continuously by cosmic rays hitting our astronomical bodies, like the moon, the sun, like Jupiter and so on and so forth. And the earth's still here, the sun's still here, the moon's still here. LHC collisions are not going to destroy the planet."

But how will all those collisions benefit the planet?

"We don't justify CERN or other big particle accelerators on the basis of spin-offs or technology transfer," Ellis said. "Of course, we do have programs for that. Personally, I believe that the most important knowledge transfer that we can make is by training young people who then maybe go off and do something else. I think that's probably more important than some particular technological widget that we may develop.

"I think the primary justification for this sort of science that we do is fundamental human curiosity," Ellis said. "It's true, of course, that every previous generation that's made some breakthrough in understanding nature has seen those discoveries translated into new technologies, new possibilities for the human race. That may well happen with the Higgs boson. Quite frankly, at the moment I don't see how you can use the Higgs boson for anything useful."

Kaku takes a different view: He said physicists will have to do a better job of explaining the potential payoffs if they expect taxpayers to keep covering the multibillion-dollar cost of exploring the scientific frontier. He pointed to the example of the Superconducting Super Collider — a project planned for Texas that would have been bigger than the Large Hadron Collider, but was canceled by Congress after $2 billion had been spent.

"After that cancellation, we physicists learned that we have to sing for our supper," Kaku said. "The Cold War is over. You can't simply say 'Russia!' to Congress, and they whip out their checkbook and say, 'How much?' We have to tell the people why this atom-smasher is going to benefit their lives."

Forecasting future benefits
If past physics experiments are any guide, the potential payoffs would likely come in three areas, Kaku said:

Telecommunications: The challenge of dealing with all the data created by past experiments led to the creation of the World Wide Web at CERN in 1990. In a similar way, the Large Hadron Collider could usher in an era of global distributed computing and more efficient mass data storage. A better understanding of the subatomic world could lead to breakthroughs in quantum computing and super-secure communication.
Medicine: Particle accelerators are already playing a fast-rising role in cancer treatment and medical imaging. New technologies developed for the Large Hadron Collider could well find their way into hospitals of the future. The ultrasensitive photon detector built for the LHCb experiment is a prime example, said the project's deputy spokesperson, Roger Forty. "I think there will be some cross-pollination with medical applications," he told msnbc.com.

Energy: Kaku suggested that the insights gained from the Large Hadron Collider could be applied to developing new energy sources in the decades ahead — such as controlled fusion power. Those microscopic black holes might even play a long-range role in the energy quest. "Some people think that maybe black holes in outer space may be a source of energy for future civilizations," he said.
Looking even farther ahead, Kaku noted that a deeper understanding of the universe has always led to technological leaps. Harnessing mechanical power led to the steam engine and the industrial revolution of the 19th century. The unification of electricity and magnetism led to computers, lasers and other 20th-century wonders. Unlocking the secrets of the atom led to the triumphs and terrors of the nuclear age.

"Human history has been shaped by the progressive unraveling of gravity, electricity and magnetism, and the nuclear force," Kaku said. "Now we are at the brink of the granddaddy of all such unifications ... the unification of all forces into a super force. We think the super force is superstring theory, a super force that drove the big bang, that created the heavens and the earth, that drives the sun, that makes all the wondrous technologies of the earth possible."

Will that great revelation come from the LHC? Even Kaku thinks that would be too much of a giant leap. "The Large Hadron Collider will not open up a gateway to another universe," he said. "It will not open up a hole in space. But it will try to nail down the equations which would allow perhaps an advanced civilization to do precisely that, to manipulate the fabric of space and time."

How will the machine do that? Ironically, it takes bigger and bigger machines to unlock the smallest subatomic mysteries — and the Large Hadron Collider is the biggest Big Bang Machine ever built. With its tangles of wiring, twists of plumbing and 17 miles of supercooled magnets, the machine may well rank as one of the engineering wonders of the 21st century.

Wednesday: Showtime for the Big Bang Machine

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive

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