In Search of the 'God Particle'

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GENEVA -- Who are we? Where did we come from? What are we made of? Some scientists believe they are one step closer to answering those questions.

In 2010, a tunnel underneath the Swiss-French border, 20 billion proton particles smashed into each other at nearly the speed of light.

By smashing these particles, scientists hope to go back in time to what the world was like a billionth of a second after the universe was created. These scientists of course, believe in the evolutionary Big Bang theory.

One scientist said the proton smashing experiment was a bit like "firing needles across the Atlantic and getting them to collide half way."

World's Largest Atom Collider

The machine that's making those collisions happen is called the "Large Hadron Collider" or LHC.

"It's the most powerful particle accelerator that we have ever built," Dr. Tara Shears, a particle physicist who is working on the Large Hadron Collider, told CBN News.

Twenty years in the making and at a cost of more than $8 billion, the LHC is one of the largest and most sophisticated scientific machines ever made.

The collider is held in a 17-mile tunnel 300 feet under the border between Switzerland and France near Geneva.

"From the point of view of the complexity, this is most probably the most ambitious scientific enterprise ever tried by mankind," explained Sergio Bertolucci, who directs research on the LHC.

Inside the Time Machine

Here's how it works: At full power, trillions of subatomic particles called protons race around the LHC ring 11,000 plus times a second. The protons zip through the tunnel at nearly the speed of light.

In a simulation of what happens inside the 17-mile ring, half of the protons run clockwise, half counter-clockwise.

"One of the big challenges is to bend a high-energy beam of protons around this ring," said Dr. Mike Lamont, head of operations. "So we've got this big 15 meter-long bending magnets which kind of pull the beam around."

The collisions happen at four massive detectors set up at different points along the collider.

"Basically, they are in a bunch and most of them miss each other and every now and then we get a collision between one of these protons," Lamont added.

Keeping the Monster Cool

When the proton beams collide they generate temperatures more than 100,000 times hotter than the sun. So to keep the ring from burning up, liquid helium chills it to a cool minus 456 degrees Fahrenheit.

The LHC is run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN. More than 10,000 scientists, engineers and technicians from 80 countries, including the United States, are involved in the experiment.

Scientists at the CERN center like to describe the LHC as a sort of time machine because the ultimate goal is to recreate the environment nano-seconds after the so-called Big Bang.

"When these very powerful particle beams collide together inside our experiments what actually goes on there is in that very tiny instance of time," Dr. Shears explained. "We are recreating an area of huge energies. We are actually recreating what the universe looked like a billionth of second after the Big Bang and if we can do that, we can photograph essentially what went on it."

Secrets of the Universe

Shears and the other scientists say they are trying to understand and make sense of the world we live in. What makes the universe tick, if you will? What sticks it together? What makes it look the way it does?

"What we want to find out is why we are here? What happened in the very beginning? How is it possible that life exists in this universe?" Dr. Rolf Landua, a research physicist at CERN, said. "Now we have finally the chance to study that in the laboratory by just recreating the conditions as they were at that time."

Record Collision

On March 30, the LHC, also know to some as the Big Bang Machine, set a collision record by smashing together billions of protons at three times more force than ever before.

"And we've brought them into collision in each of the four experiments," said Dr. Lamont from the control center monitoring the LHC.

Scientists estimate the collisions produce about 700 megabytes of data per second. They'll spend the next 18 to 24 months doing billions of such collisions and analyzing the data.

"If we are lucky, within a few months we will be really able to start a major adventure in modern physics," said scientist Guido Tonelli, who has been working on the collider for over 14 years.

In Search of the 'God Particle'

And a key part of the adventure in all this includes the search for the Higgs Boson, a theoretical particle that scientists believe is crucial to understanding how the universe functions. The Higgs has also been called the 'God Particle'.

Shears believes if the tests don't find this particle, it could be a serious blow to modern science.

"If our theory is wrong, our understanding of the universe is wrong and that's quite serious because it means that we have really been on the wrong track in our understanding of how the universe has evolved and what makes it link together at the very smallest scales." Shears said. "When it comes down to it, there is so much in the universe that we don't understand, even very fundamental things, even things as fundamental as mass and weight."

Since last month, physicists say they've created more than 10 million mini-Big Bangs. The data from these collisions are fed to tens of thousands of computers around the world. Thousands of scientists will spend the next several years analyzing the data from Large Hadron Collider hoping to unlock the secrets of the universe.

*Originally published April 26, 2010. 

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