Buried underground along the Swiss - French border is one of the most important scientific research projects ever undertaken. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is busy, working to discover the smallest and most intangible pieces of matter and energy that make up our universe. Working with particles so small that an atom is considered massive, the scientists at CERN are probing the very building blocks of matter.
The LHC uses a series of magnets to force the collision of two streams of hadrons to collide. A series of sensors then measure and produce data on the results of that collision. These particles are moving at near light speed and the collision produces a great deal of energy resulting in the formation or release of a variety of sub-atomic particles.
The LHC is able to accelerate other types of particles as well as hadrons. In 2010, it was used to produce collisions between two beams of lead. These experiments looked at conditions believed to exist in our universe one millionth of a second after the Big Bang. Since ions are atoms with an electrical charge, collisions reveal the particles that make up the basic structures of the atom, the protons, electrons and neutrons. Quarks, gluons, Z bosons and other atomic building blocks are being studied, and evidence of even more exotic and theoretical particles has been observed.
The circle formed by the LHC is about 17 miles in circumference. The analysis of particle collisions generates data in nearly unimaginable volumes. The first day that the LHC was used, it generated 5.2 terabytes of data. That is 5,200,000,000,000 bytes. That amount of data is too large for any one computer to handle, so the data is shared among a network of computers worldwide.
The scientists using the LHC are on the hunt for particles that have only been thought of in theory, such as the Higgs Boson. The conditions at the point of the collision of the two streams of protons is believed to resemble that of our universe an instant after the Big Bang. By replicating those conditions, scientists hope to determine how our existing universe emerged. How were atoms created and how has matter changed since those first nanoseconds?
The Large Hadron Collider heavy ion program is intended to allow the study of matter at very high temperatures, observe the properties of that phase of matter and hopefully reveal some of the unknowns in sub-atomic physics. The experiments may reveal how quarks turn into protons and electrons, and why quarks only make up a portion of the mass of a proton or electron.
The LHC is allowing scientists worldwide to examine the beginnings of our universe. They are also discovering how the smallest pieces of matter come together to form atoms. From the edge of the universe to the edge of energy and matter, the LHC is providing data that will turn theory into reality.