Cern collider to break new ground for physics


PHYSICS IS about to enter uncharted territory – a place it has never been before – the annual conference of the Institute of Physics in Ireland heard at the weekend. “Nobody knows what is going to happen, that is why we are doing it,” stated Dr Steve Myers, the Irish physicist in charge of the largest atom smasher ever built.

Dr Myers told delegates at the conference in Athlone about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern, the European Nuclear Research Centre, which, from tomorrow, will begin colliding particles together at energies more than five times higher than existing records.

The timing of the meeting was particularly opportune given the imminent start-up of powerful collisions in the LHC, built at a cost of more than €4 billion. Scientists at Cern smash particles together to create the intense energies last seen after the Big Bang explosion that created the universe.

“At these energies we are starting to enter a new regime,” he told The Irish Times. “On Tuesday we are expecting to start collisions at 9.17am [8.17am Irish time]. This will just be the start and the first real [use] of the machine. People are excited and ready to go. There is a great atmosphere at Cern at the moment,” he added.

The LHC is based underground on the French-Swiss border. It forms a 27km-long ring through which particles circulate at close to the speed of light.

Huge electromagnets weighing tonnes and kept chilled in a liquid helium bath are used to control twin circulating beams of particles travelling in opposite directions.

On command these beams are crossed to produce powerful collisions that are then studied using advanced detectors. Irish scientists have a significant involvement in one of the detectors via the involvement of Dr Ronan McNulty at University College Dublin.

Dr Myers is from Belfast and manages the LHC and other accelerators at Cern, a role that has earned him the nickname the “Lord of the Rings”.

The collision energies tomorrow will be more than five times higher than the highest achieved at Fermilab, an accelerator complex in the US. Cern in the coming years is expected to achieve energies that are much higher and multiples of the record it expects to set tomorrow.

Dr Myers expects many discoveries to flow from the LHC. Particular interest focuses on a particle called the Higgs Boson. Proof of this so far theoretical particle would allow physicists to fill in the last puzzle piece in what is referred to as the “standard model” that explains the nature of matter, from a single atom to the entire visible universe.

“We hope we will see something in the first year but the LHC is designed to last for 20 to 25 years,” Dr Myers added, so there will be plenty of opportunity. “We are all very much excited by this.”

He does not believe there will be a repeat of an accident that occurred in 2008, when a system failure knocked out the machine within days of it coming into service. The LHC remained out of service while repairs costing €40 million were completed before beams were once again put into circulation late last year.