Taking a peek at the universe's core


The man who will be in charge of the world's largest experiment, the Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland, will share some of its secrets when he comes to Ireland soon, writes Dick Ahlstrom

THE WORLD MAY soon have a deeper understanding than ever before of the universe and how it works, thanks to the remarkable Large Hadron Collider. Built in a tunnel under Switzerland's Jura mountains, this €4 billion physics experiment will smash atoms together at colossal speeds to create energies not seen since the beginning of space time.

The incoming director of the Cern complex, Prof Rolf-Dieter Heuer, comes to Dublin later this month to deliver a lecture about how the LHC will shine a light on the dark corners of the universe.

The Large Hadron Collider: Shedding Light on the Dark Universeis the title Prof Heuer has chosen for the talk, which takes place at 7pm on Monday, November 24th at the RDS Concert Hall in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

The lecture is the 2008 Annual Statutory Public Lecture of the School of Theoretical Physics in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. TCD and UCD host it in alternate years, but this year's host UCD has kindly agreed to transfer to the RDS given the numbers of people likely to attend. The lecture takes place in co-operation with the RDS and The Irish Times.

Prof Heuer will describe long-standing efforts by physicists to devise the "Standard Model", an all-embracing theory that explains all the forces in the universe. The existing model helps to describe many of the findings being made by experimental physicists, but there are major gaps, Prof Heuer says.

For example, there is the small matter of a whopping 96 per cent of the entire universe -

the part we cannot see and don't understand because it is made of two mysterious substances, dark matter and dark energy.

The LHC, however, is set to give us glimpses into the nature of dark matter and dark energy. It will do this by sending stripped-down atoms spinning around its 27km ring at close to the speed of light before smashing them together to release stupendous bursts of energy.

These unimaginably powerful collisions will approximate the energies seen in our universe only moments after the Big Bang that formed it. It will also allow short-lived particles to form that should deliver information about the fundamental forces that drive the universe. These insights "could dramatically change our view of the world", Prof Heuer suggests.

The LHC is undergoing repairs after a technical failure that occurred soon after its start-up in September. It is also entering its scheduled winter maintenance shutdown so we will have to wait until some time next year for the first collisions to occur.

These will come, however, and when they do the LHC will bring us a view into the future of particle physics.

Prof Heuer is currently research director for particle and astroparticle physics at Germany's DESY laboratory in Hamburg. He assumes his post as the new Cern director general on January 1st, 2009.

The organisers expect there will be significant demand for places at the lecture given the subject under discussion , so those wishing to attend should book in advance.

Admission is free, but places will be booked on a first come, first served basis.

• E-mail science@rds.ie, providing your name and number of seats required, or tel: 01-2407217.