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Will the Large Hadron Collider end the world when it goes online in October this year?

The Large Hadron Collider may not have the most imaginative name, but it’s certainly a descriptive one. Built by CERN, the same group who came up with The Grid that I previously wrote about (The River Journal 14 May, 2008 Vol. 17 No. 9), the LHC is the largest particle accelerator built. With a circumference of 17 miles and crossing the France/Switzerland border four different times, it really is no joke. The ironic part is that this massive structure will be rocketing protons at each other.

So why build something so big, in order to make incredibly tiny things hit each other? Well, to make even smaller things, of course. The hopes and dreams of physicists around the world is that the LHC will produce the Higgs Boson.

The Higgs Boson is a theoretical particle or field that interacts with other particles and gives them mass. The friendliest and most used example is to imagine a party where the crowd is evenly spaced out throughout the room. As the host enters the door, those closest to him will gather around him. As the host wanders the room he will gather those around him, while leaving behind the ones where he has been. So he will always have a group, or mass, which hinders his movement, but those people, or particles, will change.

Finding the Higgs Boson is considered a critical step in developing the Grand Unified Theory or, in CERN’s words, to find the missing ingredient in the “recipe for a universe.” It is expected that the LHC will help scientists answer some of the remaining questions in physics.

In order to accelerate the particles, make them collide, read the results, and distribute the findings, a huge amount of resources are needed. The 17-mile pipe is roughly 12 feet in diameter and has two adjacent beam pipes. The particles travel within the beam and the two beams travel in opposite directions. Bending magnets (1,232 of them) keep the beams in the circular path, and 392 more magnets are used to keep the beams focused. The focusing magnets are used to increase the chances that the particles will collide in one of the four intersection points. In order to cool over 1,600 superconducting magnets, many weighing over 27 tons, 96 tons of liquid helium are needed.

The four intersection points will have a total of six detectors ranging from two very large generalized detectors, to a detector to focus on heavy-ion collisions, plus three more that are even more specialized.

In order to handle the vast amounts of information that will be produced by the LHC, CERN has had to come up with its own database known as The Grid. Using fiber optic technology  and preexisting high speed connections, physicists across the globe will be able to view findings from the LHC.

Most of the negative feedback concerning the LHC regards the safety issue; many people are concerned with the unknown aspect of causing protons to collide. In reality, no one really knows what will happen on the first run in October. Some of the speculations regarding “doomsday accidents” occurring range from the creation of black holes to a chain reaction that could wipe out everything. The public has been assured that there is only a “very small chance of a black hole forming.”

In popular literature, Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” postulated the creation of anti-matter from the Large Hadron Collider. In response, CERN published a “fact or fiction” section on their website  to respond to scientific issues in the book. CERN does indeed produce and study anti-matter, as do other research institutes, and has been doing so for years - without ending the world.

The LHC is scheduled to produce the first high energy collisions on October 21 of this year.

I’ve tried to summarize a very large and complex project here; to get the full picture please do your own research on the Large Hadron Collider. It will make history when it goes online this year - hopefully, it won’t end history as well.

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Author info

Thomas McMahon Thomas McMahon is a student at Albertson's College of Idaho who, when he's not playing some geeky video game or designing some new, award-winning engineering project, plays basketball and tennis. His study interest is engineering.

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