Atom smasher cranked up more

2010-03-31 20:32

Geneva - Physicists at Cern, buoyed by their ground-breaking success in creating mini-Big Bangs giving them a glimpse of the dawn of time, began on Wednesday to push closer towards the very birth of the universe.

Just a day after achieving the first megapower particle collisions at 50 per second, they set their sights on boosting that number up to 300 per second inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern).

"We are moving to ever new frontiers of science," said Cern spokesperson James Gillies as new bunches of particle beams were injected in opposite directions into the 27km oval LHC under the border between France and Switzerland near Geneva.

The aim is to increase in the coming months the flow of data on what happens when particles smash into each other at a total force of 7 million million electron volts, or 7TeV, and at a mini-fraction under the speed of light.

'New physics'

At those powers, the collisions came very close to simulating events just nano-parts of a second after the real Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago which led to the creation of galaxies, stars, life on Earth, and perhaps life elsewhere.

Gillies said the number of particle bunches would be increased from two at a time on Tuesday to up to 2 700 over the initial 18 months to two years of the first "New Physics" stage of the $9.4bn marathon LHC project.

"It would be like sending more and more cars in opposite directions down one side of a motorway, more and more would be smashing into each other head-on," he added.

The collisions, shown on Cern monitors in multicoloured graphics like traditional artists' visions of the primeval fireball and its aftermath, are being tracked by thousands of scientists around the world involved in the project.

They and their colleagues at Cern, staffed by scientists and researchers from some 30 countries, are hoping to discover what the invisible dark material believed to make up 25% of the universe is and perhaps discover new dimensions.

Black holes

Some outside researchers, echoed by doomsday theorists, say Cern is putting at risk the survival of mankind by also creating tiny black holes - mini-versions of the vast ones at the heart of most galaxies which suck in all matter that comes close.

Scientists on the LHC reject this possibility. "The black holes that might emerge in our collisions will survive a fraction of a second and then dissolve. They present no danger to humankind," said Denis Denegris, a Cern physicist.

If all continues to go well, injection of beams into the LHC will continue almost daily and all but non-stop until near the end of 2011, when the hugely complex project will be suspended for a year to prepare the LHC for more powerful collisions.

From 2013, particles will be smashed together at a total force of 14 TeV, and that could turn up what Cern's director of research Sergio Bertolucci calls "unknown unknowns" - aspects of the make-up of the universe that come as a total surprise.

Cern specialists say that the Higgs Boson, a theoretical energy particle that helped turn the disparate matter spawned in the Big Bang into mass and thus made creation of the cosmos possible, is most likely to be found at that stage.