Over in Europe, scientists are getting ready to turn on a huge machine. In fact, it is the biggest machine that human beings have ever built, and one of the most expensive. The machine is called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, and scientists hope that it will help them unlock some of the deepest, darkest secrets of the universe.
What are some of these secrets? It turns out that there are all sorts of things that scientists don't know about the universe. For example, where does "mass" come from? We know that all things made of atoms have mass, but we don't actually know where mass comes from. And speaking of mass, why can't we see lots of it? When we try to measure the mass of the universe, it seems to be a lot heavier than it should be. There seems to be lots of matter in the universe that we can't see. What is this "dark matter", and where is it hiding? And what about black holes? Can we create tiny black holes, and if we can, how do they behave? What can we learn from them? We may be able to answer all of these questions and many more using the LHC.
What is the LHC, and how does it work? It is an incredibly complex machine. But if we start with the basics, we can understand the essence of the LHC.
We have all heard of atoms. We can make water, for example, by combining hydrogen atoms with oxygen atoms. That's easy enough. What is inside an atom? Using fairly simple experiments at the beginning of the twentieth century, scientists were able to discover electrons, protons and neutrons. By the way, protons and neutrons are known as hadrons.
The next question is obvious: What is inside a hadron? This is not so easy a question to answer. But scientists discovered that they could bash two protons together to learn what's inside. The machine that does the bashing is called a particle accelerator, also known as an atom smasher.
The earliest particle accelerators were very simple and could fit in the palm of your hand. By building bigger and bigger particle accelerators, scientists could learn more and more. The basic idea behind a particle accelerator is simple. You take a particle like a proton, and you put a group of them in a sealed tube. You take all the air out of the tube using a vacuum pump, so the protons don't have anything to run into. Then, using microwave energy (a lot like the energy used in a microwave oven), you accelerate the protons.
Most particle accelerators are shaped like rings, and they contain magnets that steer the protons around the ring and keep the protons bunched together. As the protons accelerate, their speed gets closer and closer to the speed of light.
Protons are incredibly tiny, but at the speed of light they have a lot of energy. To understand this, think about a baseball. If a little kid throws a baseball at you, it probably won't even hurt. If a major league pitcher throws a 100 mph fastball at you, it will hurt a lot. If someone shoots a baseball out of a cannon at 500 mph and it hits you, it will kill you. A proton in a particle accelerator is going 186,000 mph, and it has a lot of energy despite its tiny size.
The Large Hadron Collider is the biggest particle accelerator ever built, and it will create the fastest protons human beings have ever created. Its ring is over 5 miles in diameter and has a tube 17 miles long. And the LHC actually has two tubes, so that two groups of protons can accelerate in opposite directions. The scientists will then slam the two streams of protons together in the biggest head on collision ever.
The collision will happen in an underground detector room that is as big as a warehouse. The detector is basically a gigantic, specialized movie camera that can sense all of the debris that flies out from the collision. The debris contains the particles that make up the protons - things like quarks and leptons. The only reason that we know that quarks and leptons exist is because we have particle accelerators.
Because the collisions in the LHC will be so massive, scientists are hoping that they will see new particles that no one has ever seen before. For example, scientists think there's a particle inside atoms called the Higgs Boson, and that this particle is the thing that gives atoms mass. But scientists have never witnessed a Higgs Boson, so they don't know whether it exists. Scientists also hope that the LHC will have enough energy that they are able to create mini black holes, which will then immediately evaporate because they are so small. And maybe scientists will find new particles that no one has ever imagined before.
Because of these possibilities, scientists all over the planet are excited about the LHC, and thousands of scientists are working on the project. With luck, they can start accelerating their first protons sometime in 2008 and begin making new discoveries. We should learn many new things about how the universe works from the LHC.
Digita information System and data
Digital information is being created at a faster pace than previously thought, and for the first time, the amount of digital information created each year has exceeded the world's available storage space, according to a report from analyst firm IDC.
"This is our first time ... where we couldn't store all the information we create even if we wanted to," states the EMC-sponsored report, titled The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe.
The amount of information created, captured and replicated in 2007 was 281 exabytes (or 281 billion gigabytes), 10% more than IDC previously believed — and more than the 264 exabytes of the estimated available storage on hard drives, tapes, CDs, DVDs and memory. IDC revised its estimate upward after realising it had underestimated shipments of cameras and digital TVs, as well as the amount of information replication.
The 2007 total is well above that of 2006, when 161 exabytes of digital information was created or replicated.
The world isn't actually running out of storage space, IDC notes, because a lot of digital information doesn't need to be stored. Examples include radio and TV broadcasts consumers listen to and watch but don't record, voice call packets that aren't needed when a call is over, and surveillance video that isn't saved.
But the gap between available storage and digital information will only grow, making it that much harder for vendors and users to efficiently store information that does need to be archived.
In 2011 there will be nearly 1,800 exabytes of information created, twice the amount of available storage, IDC predicts. One long-term experiment planned for the soon-to-open Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest particle acclerator, in Switzerland by itself will create an amazing 300 exabytes of data per year, IDC says.
EMC's president of content management, Mark Lewis, doesn't think the world will ever hit the point where the world's available storage is exceeded by the amount of information organisations need to store. "With the price points of storage continuing to decline, I don't think we're ever going to create some kind of storage shortage," he says.
Organisations and their employees create about a third of new data, but organisations are ultimately responsible for maintaining the security, privacy and reliability of 85% of all data, according to IDC.
Information growth is placing greater importance on retaining data in lower-cost, environmentally sound ways, with lower-performance drives, archiving and powering down storage devices containing rarely accessed data, Lewis says.
About 70% of new information is created when individuals take actions, such as snapping pictures, making VoIP calls, uploading content to YouTube and sending emails. But more than half of the information related to individuals isn't directly created by them. Rather, the bulk of this digital content is a person's "digital shadow", information about individual human beings sitting in cyberspace. Digital surveillance photos, web search histories, banking and medical records and general backup data all contribute to someone's digital shadow.
Here's a quick look from IDC at how a few businesses and industries contribute to growing data volumes:
@ Wal-Mart refreshes its customer databases hourly, adding a billion new rows of data each hour to a data warehouse that already holds 600 terabytes.
@ The oil and gas industry is developing a "digital oilfield" to monitor exploration activity. Chevron's system accumulates 2 terabytes of new data each day.
@ The utility industry may develop an "intelligent grid" with millions of sensors in the distribution system and power meters.
@ Manufacturing companies are rapidly deploying digital surveillance cameras and RFID tracking.
@YouTube's 100 million users create nearly as much digital information as all medical imaging operations