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!