Scientists start up 'Big Bang' machine


Scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) this morning launched a 20-year project to re-enact the "Big Bang" to try to explain the origins of the universe and how it came to harbour life.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the largest and most complex machine ever made and the platform for what experts say is the largest scientific experiment in human history.

Tests conducted inside the tightly-sealed chamber, buried under the Swiss-French border, could unlock the remaining secrets of modern physics and answer questions about the universe and its origins.

The 10 billion Swiss franc (€6.22 billion) machine's debut came as a blip on a screen in CERN's control room, with a particle beam the size of a human hair appearing in the tightly-sealed 17-mile circular tunnel.

"We've got a beam on the LHC," project leader Lyn Evans told his colleagues, who burst into applause at the news.

The several hundred physicists and technicians huddled in the control room later celebrated loudly again when a particle beam completed a trajectory of the accelerator in one direction, a key step a CERN spokeswoman described as "fantastic."

Problems with the LHC's magnets caused its temperature, which is kept at minus 271.3 degrees Celsius, to fluctuate slightly, delaying efforts to send the particle beam in the counter-clockwise direction. The beam
started its progression and then was halted.

"This is a hiccup, not a major thing," Rudiger Schmidt, CERN's head of hardware commissioning, told reporters, adding the second rotation should be completed later this afternoon.

Mr Evans, who wore jeans and running shoes to the start-up, declined to say when those high-energy clashes would begin.

"I don't know how long it will take," he said. "I think what has happened this morning bodes very well that it will go quickly ... This is a machine of enormous complexity. Things can go wrong at any time. But this morning we had a great start."

Once the particle-smashing experiment gets to full speed, data measuring the location of particles to a few millionths of a metre, and the passage of time to billionths of a second, will show how the particles come together, fly apart, or dissolve.

It is in these conditions that scientists hope to find fairly quickly a theoretical particle known as the Higgs Boson, named after Scottish scientist Peter Higgs who first proposed it in 1964, as the answer to the mystery of how matter gains mass.

Without mass, the stars and planets in the universe could never have taken shape in the aeons after the Big Bang, and life could never have begun on Earth or, if it exists as many cosmologists believe, on other worlds either.

The experiment is not without detractors.

Websites on the internet, itself created at Cern nearly 20 years ago as a means of passing particle research results to scientists around the globe, have promoted claims that the LHC will create black holes sucking in the planet.

"Nonsense," say the Cern - and other leading scientists. "The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction," declared Dr Aymar.