The bee side - Science is having a smashing time
Well I've been pretty excited to hear all about the switching on of the world's biggest science experiment; the Large Hadron Collider (or LHC if you like) in France and Switzerland. It's not to be confused, by the way, with the Large-Electron Positron Collider. Plenty of people make that mistake, but they're not the same thing at all. Oh no.
The thing with this Large Hadron Collider is that it's, well, large. Basically, it's a 27km-long circular subterranean tunnel on the French-Swiss border that's designed to smash particles together with cataclysmic force. The way the scientists intend to do that is to get two beams of particles whizzing around and around in this big circular tunnel in opposite directions and, having got them up to pretty much the speed of light, to switch some kind of chicane mechanism and smash them into each other. It all sounds to me much like the sort of thing young boys have always done with Scalextric sets, and if the truth's told is probably how it was all thought up in the first place.
If you have never impaled two Scalextric cars on each other this way I'm sure you'll still appreciate that the end result of such a collision is that the cars get smashed to bits and stuff goes flying off all over the place. Apparently that's the way it is with beams of particles too. The main difference, though, seems to be that with the cars you'll continue to find the odd wheel and bits of plastic in the room for days afterward, whereas with particles the bits disappear in billionths of a billionth of a nanosecond. Particles would seem to be much tidier things to have around the house than toy cars in that respect and, who knows, maybe one of the spin- offs of this experiment will be some kind of particle toy that children can play with and not mess the house up.
While that would be a good outcome, it's not the main reason for the experiment. No, the main reason is to see if we can explain why some particles have mass and some don't. I'm assuming you're up to speed quantum physics-wise, but if you're not just take it from me that not all particles have mass. For a lot of us that's got "So what?" written all over it, but to the scientist types it's a big deal; you don't build a 27km underground tunnel at the cost of five billion big ones just for a laugh, do you?
Anyway, they've come up with some clever way of photographing the impacts and recording the short-lived bits of particles that ensue. In doing that scientists will be able to see what conditions were like just billionths of a second after the big bang.
The experiment, like all experiments, is being used to prove or disprove theories top scientists have come up with over the years. The big theory they're hoping to prove is one that a guy called Professor Higgs came up with in 1964. According to his theory there's a special particle out there (called the Higgs Boson in his honour) that may explain why some particles have mass and some don't. The Higgs Boson, if it exists at all, only lives for about a billionth of a billionth of a second, but they're confident their cameras will snap it if it's out there. I'm personally hoping my own theory will also be proven by this experiment and that the stakeholder particle, an even shorter-lived particle than the Higgs Boson, will turn up. You never know, there could be a Nobel prize in it for me yet.
First published in Pensions Management, October 2008