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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Large hadron collider challenge

Scientists are conducting the largest physics experiment in the world and searching for “the God particle” — a mysterious bit of stuff that would prove the prevailing theory of particle physics. Since the Higgs boson particle should disintegrate and disappear almost as soon as it is created, actually detecting one is a long shot. But if an accelerator can do it, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) can.

The LHC, a 17-mile circular tunnel, straddles the border of Switzerland and France. This July, it is scheduled to accelerate protons to collisions at 99.9999991% the speed of light. Scientists hope these collisions will produce fundamental particles that are the building blocks of all matter. The 14-year, $8 billion project has enough gigantic magnets, vacuum tubes, and high-tech detectors and gadgetry to satisfy the most fastidious physicist.

Okay, almost every physicist. As Harrison Scott Key notes at WMB, a couple scientists have filed a lawsuit (in a Hawaii court) against the LHC, worried that the high-energy collisions may accidentally spawn a black hole that swallows the Earth or create “strangelets” that will turnthe Earth into lifeless “strange matter.” While both creations are theoretically possible, LHC officials say it’s crazy that either would destroy Earth. (If you disagree, you can contribute to the lawsuit instigators here.)

Scientists hope the LHC will decide what occurred in those legendary moments after the big bang. In a Newsweek interview, theoretical physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg in a answered questions about how the LHC could impact religion if it results in a “final theory of how the universe was created:”

As science explains more and more, there is less and less need for religious explanations. Originally, in the history of human beings, everything was mysterious. Fire, rain, birth, death, all seemed to require the action of some kind of divine being. As time has passed, we have explained more and more in a purely naturalistic way. This doesn’t contradict religion, but it does [take] away one of the original motivations for religion.

Around 180 budding physicists will be competing to design a detector capable of finding invisible particles at a special physics masterclass being held at Bristol University this week

Sixth-form students and teachers from 14 schools in the region will be taking part in the event, giving them a chance to hear about some of the latest developments in particle physics, including the world’s largest scientific experiment, the Large Hadron Collider.

Hosted by the University’s Department of Physics, the day will consist of a mixture of talks and practical sessions, including an activity entitled ‘The Detector Game’ in which students will be asked to design a proposal to build a detector to look for new particles.

The students will also have the opportunity to quiz, via video-conference, Bristol University physicists who are currently working at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, who are getting ready to switch on the Large Hadron Collider.

The practical sessions will also allow students to try their hand at identifying what is happening in particle collisions recorded at CERN. The day will end with a quiz and prize-giving event.

Dr Clare Lynch, Research Assistant in the University’s Department of Physics, said: “We shall be highlighting some of Bristol University’s research in particle physics, and hope to give our visitors a sense of the excitement of investigating matter at the most fundamental level. This is a particularly exciting time for particle physics, as the Large Hadron Collider will begin colliding particles in a few months.”

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