Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider managed to make two proton beams collide at high energy Tuesday, marking a “new territory” in physics, according to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
The $10 billion research tool has been accelerating the beams since November in the LHC’s 17-mile tunnel on the border of Switzerland and France.
The beams have routinely been circulating at 3.5 TeV, or teraelectron volts, the highest energy achieved at the LHC so far, according to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
The first two attempts Tuesday failed, said Steve Myers, CERN’s director for accelerators. He said the beams were lost before they reached their full energy.
Experiments at the LHC may help answer fundamental questions such as why Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity — which describes the world on a large scale — doesn’t jibe with quantum mechanics, which deals with matter far too small to see.
The collider may help scientists discover new properties of nature. The as-yet theoretical Higgs boson, also called “the God particle” in popular parlance, could emerge within two or three years, Myers said in November.
Evidence of supersymmetry — the idea that every particle has a “super partner” with similar properties in a quantum dimension (according to some physics theories, there are hidden dimensions in the universe) — could crop up as early as 2010.
The collider has been dogged by problems. It made headlines late last year when a bird apparently dropped a “bit of baguette” into the accelerator, making the machine shut down.
The incident was similar in effect to a standard power cut, said spokeswoman Katie Yurkewicz. Had the machine been going, there would have been no damage, but beams would have been stopped until the machine could be cooled back down to operating temperatures, she said.
The collider achieved its first full-circle beam in September 2008 amid much celebration. But just nine days later, the operation was set back when one of the 25,000 joints that connect magnets in the LHC came loose and the resulting current melted or burned some important components of the machine, Myers said.
The faulty joint has a cross-section of a mere two-thirds of an inch by two-thirds of an inch.
Should Tuesday’s experiment go as planned and scientists are able to establish 7 TeV collisions, the plan is to run them continuously for 18 to 24 months with a short technical stop at the end of 2010, CERN said.
“It will be the beginning of a long period of running the accelerator with beams at this energy,” Sutton said. “It’s the period in which experiments will really start to collect data in this new energy region, where the potential for discoveries may be made.”
Sutton compared the experiments to Christopher Columbus sailing for the New World in 1492, when he knew what he was looking for but didn’t know what he might find.
“It’s going into a new energy region,” she said. “It’s a new territory in particle physics, so we’re really just standing on the threshold of that, which is exciting for everybody here, of course.”
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