What happens when you take 185,000 gallons of liquid Helium, 1,200 superconducting magnets weighing several tons apiece and chill it colder than outerspace? Hopefully you get confirmation of the much anticipated Higgs boson.
Contrary to rumors sweeping the academic blogosphere, CERN's Large Hadron Collider is still on track to begin hunting for the long sought Higgs boson next March, according to LHC project leader Lyn Evans of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). But a crucial upgrade of 16 superconducting magnets around the accelerator will prevent a full test run originally planned for this December, he says, meaning researchers will have to troubleshoot glitches on the fly.
It's taken CERN, the European physics consortium, 20 years, 8 billion dollars and the combined efforts of over 60 countries, but they are finally nearing completion on a 17 mile underground loop that forms the heart of what will be the world's largest atom smasher and one capable of exploring the entire range of energies thought capable of producing the predicted, but never before observed, particle.
First conceived in the 1960s by British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, the Higgs boson was intended to help plug a huge gap in the understanding of quantum physics. The simplest and most elegant quantum models require that all elementary particles should have the same mass: zero. But every moment of human experience asserts this is not so and experiments show that the masses of elementary particles in fact differ by many orders of magnitude. Physicist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin and Pakistani theorist Abdus Salam used the Higgs concept to bring theory in line with reality.
In Weinberg's synthesis, the Higgs field is like a sea of molasses that fills all of space. It resists the movement of particles to varying degrees. The more a particle interacts with the Higgs field, the greater the resistance and the heavier the particle. The symmetry of the standard model is thus restored because mass is no longer seen as an intrinsic property of matter. All elementary particles weigh nothing until they interact with the Higgs field. Variations in Higgs field interactions are the only explanation physicists have for the fact that the heftiest known particle weighs 200,000 times as much as the lightest one, while photons weigh nothing at all.
Scheduled to go online at the end of this year, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, should be sufficiently sensitive to identify, once and for all, the last particle to be predicted by the Standard Model which relies on the Higgs Field, consisting of Higgs Bosons, to assign weight to every particle in existence. The Fermilab's Tevatron in Chicago has so far proven to be insufficiently sensitive to detect the particle, while CERN's previous atom smasher, the Large Electron Positron, was shut down in 2000 just as it was beginning to produce data consistent with Higgs bosons in order to begin work on the LHC. Physicists have been patiently waiting 7 years for this massive undertaking to be completed in order to resume their search.
When completed, the LHC's subatomic fireballs will be the highest-energy particle collisions ever seen on Earth. This is uncharted territory. The collisions at LHC could spray out strange new kinds of matter, unfurl hidden dimensions of space, even generate tiny glowing reenactments of the birth of the universe. In short, there is more than just the search for the Higgs going on at the LHC.
Let the smashing begin.
Posted by Garth Sullivan.