LHC smacks some protons!

By Phil Plait | March 30, 2010 10:30 am

After more than a decade of triumph, setbacks, and much sturm and drang, the Large Hadron Collider made history last night by taking two beams of protons and smashing them head on at just a whisper under the speed of light.


The LHC is the world’s largest physics experiment, and is attempting to recreate conditions in the Universe when it was only a fraction of a second old. At that point, pressures and temperatures were so high that the laws of physics were somewhat different than we’re used to. These conditions are extremely difficult to duplicate, which is why it’s taken so long to get the LHC running. The collider uses extremely powerful magnets to guide and accelerate two beams of protons to nearly the speed of light. They go around the collider in opposite directions, then are tweaked to smack into each other. The huge energies of the collision create particles and conditions that can be detected and used to test theories of how the Universe behaves.

There were some minor glitches before the protons could be injected into the main collider last night, but once things got going, the beams were sent at each other at full power. The energies were ramped up to 3 TeV, or three trillion electron volts (a unit of energy).

Now, 3 TeV is not much energy in human terms. It’s roughly the amount of energy of a single mosquito in flight. But for a single proton, 3 TeV is huge, vast, incredible, brobdingnagian, ginormous! When the two proton beams are at full power, they contain the same kinetic energy as a battleship moving at several kph! So we’re talking about powerful events, indeed.

I visited CERN and the LHC a couple of years ago, and wrote up my thoughts. I was of the opinion then, and still am now, that this will be a revolution in physics.

I made a video of that tour, too.

My congratulations to the hordes of people who made this moment possible. It has been a long, difficult journey indeed, but now the real voyage is underway. May the wild physics rumpus begin!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science

Comments (53)

  1. Charlie Young

    And the Earth is still here!

  2. Yojimbo

    Oh it will take the black hole days to eat the whole planet. I plan to get another round of golf in.

  3. WJM

    Those protons had it coming to them anyway.

  4. I look forward to hearing the results of the many studies done at LHC. I hope they find some surprises.

    …pressures and temperatures were so high that the laws of physics were somewhat different than we’re used to.

    Can you (or anyone here) give some examples? I’m curious.

  5. Oh! man! what an experience! I just wished we could use one of this labs to propel a Spaceship! ROFL!

  6. Marcus

    PsyberDave: On the “somewhat different” laws of physics: my guess is he’s talking about the laws pre “symmetry breaking”. Eg, now we have the electromagnetic force, weak and strong nuclear force, and gravity. But early in the universe, at high temperatures and pressures, some of these forces were combined – eg, the “electroweak” (electromagnetic and weak) or “electronuclear” (the non-gravity forces) forces. When all you have is the electronuclear force, you can’t make nuclei or atoms – but you can still make Higgs bosons (in fact, they are possibly the only particle you can make).

    Some of this is on the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_Big_Bang webpage.


  7. Yes, the world should end sometime this afternoon, and it won’t do a bit of good to put a paper bag over your head.

    “Last orders, please!”

  8. Mchl

    To add more detail: It was 3.5 TeV per beam, so the energy of actual collision was in the range of 7 TeV!
    And they plan to push it up to 14 TeV somewhere in 2012

  9. Darn it! I don’t have my towel with me! How am I supposed to survive the black hole and hitchhike around the galaxy without my towel?

  10. Carey @ #7: Alternately, “The secret is to bang the rocks together, guys!”

    Very small rocks.

  11. OtherRob

    Will no one think of the protons?!?!

  12. Brandon

    Full power in 2012? See the mayans were right!

    (I’m kidding of course, happy times all around and way to go CERN!)

  13. James H.

    And here outside of Waxahachie Texas, home of the now defunct SSC (and a several billion dollar 14 mile tunnel), I bang my head against a wall and create…pain.

  14. I'd rather be fishin'

    That shot of the control screen has me worried…Please tell me LHC doesn’t run Windows. I am definitely buying a real nice towel.

  15. Mchl

    @I’d rather be fishin’: Apart from your usual desktop sort of Windows, Microsoft also produces Server grade software, as well as Real Time OS, both of which are reliable and pretty good actually.
    And even XP can be reliable, as long as you make some precautions. I’ve seen it used in a power plant, granted not for process control but for monitoring, but still that’s reponsible task.
    If you’re still worried – it was not a nuclear power plant 😉

  16. This is truly awesome, finally the scientists at the LHC can begin furthering our understanding of what the universe really is.
    This is going to be so cool :)

  17. Plasticrectangle
  18. Justin

    I’m sure this has been posted a dozen times, but just in case…


  19. Jim

    Save the Protons!!! Protons are people too!!

  20. Daniel

    Im still waiting for my pet micro black hole

  21. Buzz Parsec

    Daniel, they’ll be in the stores next Christmas. Of course, there will be a shortage, long lines, fist fights, scalpers selling them on Ebay at huge markups, and in 2 years, everyone will have forgotten about them. Tragically… :-(

  22. Don Gisselbeck

    The Oh-My-God particle (Fly’s Eye detector Oct 15,1991) had energy of about 3X10^20 electron volts. If my exponent calculation is correct that is 3X10^8 Tev. If anything could make an Earth swallowing mini black hole that would be it.

  23. Did anyone even think of asking the protons for permission to be shot around in this way?

  24. Time to start a petition to stop torturing those poor protons. PROTONS HAVE RIGHTS TOO! Peace4Protons! I also heard lead ions would be used? R.I.P.

    All that aside, I was watching some of the replays online and watched the page where it actually showed some of the data. Then they ramped it down. It was wicked cool. Can’t wait to see what comes of this.

  25. Owen

    All my co-workers here at Fermilab wish the best. We really do have a friendly competition.

    Of course, we’re still inherently niftier, but that goes without saying. 😉

  26. Joe

    So how much is 14 TeV?

  27. jcm

    proton on proton action. Oh, Yeah!

    And, I must say this: Earth’s still here.


  28. Peptron

    So, effectively the universe has collapsed today, to be replaced by a strange universe where everything is the same, except that the population of the Earth now has the compulsion to send money to Peptron’s bank account.

  29. watched it live

    well done Lyn Evans and Coxy

    it the biggest potential difference ever created.

    by the way love the tam london clip with coxy :)

    yay lyn and coxy

  30. Shouldn’t we have gotten the particle-Goddess’s permission before smashing these poor protons recklessly into one another? I mean, why do humans always have to be smashing something together in the name of “science”? Can’t we learn things through more peaceful means?


  31. John Paradox

    So they’re smacking protons? I thought they would have started off a little more basic, with amateurtrons.


  32. Mark Hansen

    When will they learn that violence is not the answer? You don’t smash protons together head-on; that will just generate a vicious circle of violence where protons will feel the compulsion to hit other protons. Instead they should sit them down and get them to explain the conditions that existed at the origin of the universe through the use of past life regression.

  33. Douglas Troy


  34. kevbo

    @Daniel et all who wanted their own microscopic black hole:

    Wal-Mart got a shipment of them yesterday.

    They didn’t last long.

  35. Astrofiend

    21. Owen Says:

    “Of course, we’re still inherently niftier, but that goes without saying”

    Maybe so, but nobody cares about nifty at the moment! It’s all about raw, face-melting collision energy! :)

  36. Cairnos

    @ all those concerned for the protons

    Remember, while smashing protons for commercial purposes is banned by the International Proton Commission, there is a specific exemption which allows protons to be smashed when it is for ‘scientific research’. Scientists at CERN say that they just can’t get the range of data they need using non-smashing methods.

  37. Filias Cupio

    Why are they doing proton-proton rather than proton-antiproton?
    First thought: there are extra complications in generating your antiprotons, you need somewhere to store them, and possibly it complicates the rest of the setup having particles of different charges.
    Second thought: but you get more available energy in a p-pbar collision
    Third thought: but only another 2GeV or so, which hardly makes a difference to a 7TeV collision
    Fourth thought: but we know there was some unexplained matter/antimatter asymmetry in the early universe. If we see an matter/antimatter asymmetry in the LHC results, we won’t be able to rule out that it was caused by the asymmetry of using only matter to generate the collision.

  38. Keith


    Protons are EVIL and must be punished.

  39. Messier Tidy Upper

    Awesome news! 8)

    My congratulations to the hordes of people who made this moment possible.

    Mine too. :-)

    It has been a long, difficult journey indeed, but now the real voyage is underway.

    Photon by photon, it is. The LHC may have got off to a slow & troubled start but I’m hoping & expecting it’ll take off from now.

    (Metaphorically that is although weird gravitational effects can’t be entirely ruled out I guess! I know nothing bad’s coming to come from the LHC – I’m 99.999999999 % sure – but ther’es still the very tiniest bit of unease and suspense mixed in as well. 😉 )

    May the wild physics rumpus begin!

    Physics rumpus?! Yes, may it indeed! :-)

  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    Correction after time’s up point – make that :

    Seriously, I know nothing bad’s coming to come from the LHC & I trust Dr Brian Cox and the other scientists there to know what they’re doing.

    I’m 99.999999999 % sure of this – but there’s still that very tiniest bit of unease and “what if something vastly, improbably, unlikely, unexpectedly bad does happen” suspense mixed in as well. 😉 )

    Put it down to reading too much bad Sf if you like but there you are.

  41. Pouria

    Did anyone else FlashForward 6 months into the future?


  42. Dave M

    re: the video Chris Morris was at CERN too??

  43. Katharine

    The Large Hardon Collider is a big bang machine. 😀

  44. Ray

    OK, so no black holes. No wormholes to alternate universes. No face-sucking monsters gated in to enslave humanity.

    Did anyone standing near the machine at least get superpowers?

  45. Re using protons and not colliding with antiprotons – LHC can eventually get up to much higher numbers (couple of orders of magnitude) of collisions much more often within the ring; Fermilab is strongly limited in comparison by the rate at which they can produce antiprotons.

  46. GuruOfChem

    @ #13 James H. –

    I’m with ya, buddy. I did some database work for the collider back when it was the hottest thing going. We could have been doing this 10 years ago, and on home soil…grr….

    This just in from the Dept. of Redundancy Department – politicians are morons!

  47. Zippy the Pinhead

    If a mosquito weighs 1-2 mg, then that’s about 10^21 proton masses. If you accelerated that mosquito with the same energy per proton mass as 3TeV that would be equivalent to a 40 kiloton nuclear explosion?!

  48. Greg in Austin

    Ray said,

    “Did anyone standing near the machine at least get superpowers?”

    Bruce Banner had a dentist appointment that day, so didn’t get hit by the unknown gamma radiation. Reed Richards and the other three were there, but Ben Grimm was really hungry, so they were all in the cafeteria at the time the machine “malfunctioned.”

    No word yet if the photographer Peter Parker had any issues.


  49. Gary Ansorge

    I expect we’re near the high end of accelerator tech. on earth. We might get another factor of ten increase in power but then we’ll need to add a linear accelerator model for the final stage of acceleration and that probably means we’ll need to build the thing in space.

    To get accelerator energies up to the level of the highest energy cosmic rays (10^21 ev), we could add a linear accelerator stage to the synchrotron. It only needs to be a few thousand km in length,,,

    Synchrotron radiation is SUCH a waste,,,

    GAry 7

  50. photo falcon

    The lady physicist on Charlie Rose last night talked about the other dimensions we might find and then then String Theory and the Theory of Everything might come together, explain gravity and all of it. It’s so very cool and sexy but I have a hard time wrapping my brain around a bunch of extra dimensions.

  51. Mike Morris

    Great! It’s working! I hope we will soon discover new information about what we really are.


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