Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Tomorrow, deep underground beneath the Franco-Swiss border, the CERN LHC will begin its first wild ride. Energized particles will race around a 17 mile loop, and eventually, when the time is right, will be able to do so at 99.99% of the speed of light. The colloquialism 'Holy Shit' comes to mind...

The CERN Large Hadron Collider is far and away the most ambitious technical achievement in particle physics in the history of civilization. Now, finally, we are at a place and time where theories, wild and crazy theories, can be tested. Are you ready; I sure am…

I was born in the 60’s, and while the technological leaps that occurred between then and now pale before those witnessed by my parents and grandparents, they are still fairly miraculous. When I was in college in the 70’s, I took computer classes at the University of Washington’s fairly state-of-the-art facility, programming in FORTRAN and BASIC. I will posit without much doubt that the computer I’m plunking away on right now is far smarter and faster than that. String Theory and superstring theory didn’t exist. Physics was pretty well grounded in Einsteinian concepts. I believe the great man had seen an inkling of such things, and it scared the crap out of him.

Now, we stand at the brink of what could and should be the most amazing discoveries in physics in the history of humankind. In roughly 24 hours, we will begin exploring the reality of what previously could not be done: Experiments will be initiated using equipment given appropriately hefty acronyms; ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment), ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus), CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), LHCb (Large Hadron Collider beauty), TOTEM (Total Elastic and Diffractive Cross Section Measurement), and LHCf (Large Hadron Collider forward). All of this GeekSpeak means the genuine potential to explore what has to this point been necessarily theoretical physics; the ability to prove or disprove such things did not exist. Now it does, and that is amazing and wonderful.

All this will not happen in a day. Fact is, it may not happen at all; we don’t know, and that’s why experiments are conducted. No one truly knows what happens when, a few months down the line high energy particles are run up to speed in both directions and allowed to collide: That process will be tested prior to a few months, but at relatively low energy levels. The fact is that, unleashed, the CERN LHC is capable of unleashing strings of trillions of charged protons packing a maximum energy of 7 TeV (tera-electronvolt), meaning that a head-to-head collision generates 14 TeV... Sounds hefty, doesn’t it? You have no idea: In non GeekSpeak,one electronvolt is roughly the amount of energy needed to dissociate a molecule AKA,the energy needed to rip a molecule apart; and this beast is capable of generating tera-electron volts, or the power of an electronvolt raised by a factor of ten to the twelfth power; can you say, ‘Yipe?’ I knew you could…

So what are they gonna do with all that energy? Potentially, everything from seeing what happened when the universe came into being, right down to proving what the glue of sub-atomic particles is. Let's start small and work our way up: Did you take physics or chemistry in school? If so, you'll recall that all matter as we know it is made up of atoms, and that atoms are composed of a nucleus surrounded by protons and neutrons, which are further surrounded by clouds of electrons. Now comes the part that probably happened after you and I got outta school: Boring further down, protons and neutrons are made up of quarks, and them quarks are held together by gluons, (No, I ain't makin' this up). The bonds that keep all that together are so strong that we have never had the capability, before now, of ripping all that stuff apart and exposing a single quark, thereby proving that the little buggers exist: That may all be about to change... Meanwhile, the how did the universe form question looms large as well: The theory holds that, right after the The Big Bang, (Things don’t make noise in a vacuum; I vastly prefer the term The Big Flash) when what little of the Universe that existed was unbelievably hot, it is theorized that a state of matter existed known as a quark-gluon plasma. The ALICE experiment I alluded to above is designed to recreate, yes I said recreate, the conditions that may have existed right after The Big Flash, and may just actually prove that theory correct: Can you imagine that? It makes the fur on the back of my neck stand up.

The actual particle collisions that the LHC is expected to be capable of creating, (Remember them tera-electronvolts?), will generate temperatures over one hundred thousand times hotter than the heart of our Sun. The scientists working on this stuff theorize that, under these conditions, those incredibly powerful bonds holding together all those protons and neutrons will effectively melt, and free the quarks from their bonds with the gluons, and that, in turn, should create that quark-gluon plasma.

From that stunning beginning, if it all works, Physicists will be able to study the quark-gluon plasma as it expands and cools, and therefore, will be able to actually, physically observe how it evolves into the particles that constitute the matter of our Universe today, let alone see one of them quarks.

Welcome to a brave new world.

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