10 September, 2008

The Meaning of Life

In yet another "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" moment, I begin to feel that I may have missed my professional calling.

Today, in a unique and awe-filled coming together of physics and philosophy with a little bit of science fiction thrown into the mix, physicists in the foothills of the Alps switched on the Large Hadron Collider housed in a tunnel beneath the French-Swiss border, sending the first beam of protons zooming at almost the speed of light. The LHC, a $9 billion particle accelerator, was designed to simulate the Big Bang that created the Universe in the hopes of advancing various physical theories. Scientists and physicists and those simply interested in the technical side of the meaning of life hope this experiment will answer many questions regarding the possibility of extra dimensions as well as finding a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson, aka the God Particle.

To be honest, this form of exploratory science just makes me giddy. A God Particle? Really? How can that not be fascinating? The Higgs boson, considered to be the Holy Grails of physics, is an elusive particle believed to bestow mass to matter, much in the same way a cluster of autograph hounds surround a celebrity on the move until they have their autographs at which point they peel off as more autograph hounds step in to take their place. In this case, the celebrity would be the matter while those seeking his autograph are the mass. As he moves down the street, the mass surrounding him makes it difficult for him to stop and once stopped, they make it difficult for him to start again.

Peter Higgs’ theory states that the particle named after him gave the Universe its form but it has eluded observation and remains a theory only. Proof of its existence would fill a missing puzzle piece in the dominant physics theory dubbed the Standard Model (particle physics version of the Periodic Table) which has been used to systematically organize all the known entities while helping to highlight and fill in knowledge gaps.

The LHC will send proton beams racing clockwise and counter-clockwise through the 27 kilometer circular tunnel creating millions of proton impacts. At full power, the LHC will be crashing protons together 600 million times per second, after which detectors will scour the subatomic wreckage looking for many of the answers they are seeking.

Many physicists feel that their entire careers have built up to this point, and that the results of this experiment will be the genesis for a “new physics”. Many detractors worry that the LHC will create a black hole large enough to envelop the Earth and that this experiment is an incautious effort to answer questions that are not dire to our survival and progression.

In fact, it is entirely possible that in the course of its run, the LHC will unleash a small black hole or two but scientists aren’t worried about any of them being big enough to cause any harm.

It is expected that the LHC will create anti-matter and it is hoped that it will explain why matter trumped anti-matter though both were created in equal amounts at the beginning of the Universe. It is also hoped that the LHC experiment may answer questions regarding the possibility of other dimensions, dark matter which makes up 25% of the Universe and supersymmetry, a theory that predicts that every particle has a partner, thus doubling up the spectrum.

I can’t find a definitive timeline for how long the experiment will run; it appears that it is open-ended with the possibility of planned equipment upgrades to combat a degradation in machinery. I expect so long as answers are forthcoming, the physicists in charge will continue seeking newer and further answers so long as they can keep the LHC running well.

Fingers crossed the Earth survives.


Peter Von Brown said...

"Does anyone want to buy a slightly used Universe?"
- Plucky Duck, Tiny Toons Adventures

Danielle Filas said...

Let's hope that if it does open up a black hole, that it's a small rather cute and harmless black hole!