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Physicists get particles, and parties, started

A giant proton collider near Geneva begins a Big Bang experiment, and scientists around the world celebrate.

September 11, 2008|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

GENEVA — Physicists around the world, some in pajamas and others with champagne, celebrated the first tests Wednesday of a huge particle-smashing machine they hope will simulate the Big Bang, which scientists believe created the universe.

Experiments using the underground Large Hadron Collider, the biggest and most complex machine ever made, could revamp modern physics and unlock secrets about the universe and its origins.

Staff in the control room on the border of Switzerland and France clapped as two beams of particles were sent silently first one way and then the other around the collider's 17-mile-long chamber.

"Things can go wrong at any time," said project leader Lyn Evans, who wore jeans and running shoes for the collider's debut. "But this morning we had a great start."

It will be weeks or months before two particles ever crash together in the giant tube, and even longer before scientists can interpret results, said Jos Engelen, chief scientific officer of the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

"Anything between a year and four years, depending on how difficult this new physics is to find," Engelen said.

Pajama-clad scientists calling themselves "Nerds in Nightshirts" partied at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., as they waited late into the night for the first signals from the $9-billion machine.

At Caltech, a partner in one of the four major experiments at the collider, students and professors drank beer and ate pizza as they waited. "This is a dream coming true for all particle physicists in the world," said Ren- Yuan Zhu, a senior scientist in high-energy physics.

A blip appeared on a computer monitor soon after the collider was switched on at 9:30 a.m. local time, or 12:30 a.m. PDT, signaling that the machine was working.

Physicists brushed off suggestions that the experiment could create tiny black holes that could suck in the planet.

"The worries that scientists had were nothing to do with being swallowed up by black holes and everything to do with technical hitches or electronic failure," said Jim al-Khalili, a physicist at Britain's University of Surrey.

"Now, after a collective sigh of relief, the real fun starts. No matter what we find, we will be unlocking the secrets of the universe."

The collider will send beams of subatomic particles called protons whizzing around the tube at just under the speed of light.

The hope is they will smash into one another and explode in a burst of new and previously unseen types of particles, re-creating on a miniature scale the heat and energy of the Big Bang, which scientists say gave birth to the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

The experiments could confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle named after Peter Higgs, who proposed it in 1964.

Also referred to as the "God particle," the Higgs boson could help explain how matter has mass. Sean M. Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech who watched the events unfolding halfway across the world on a large video screen, said he put the odds of finding the Higgs at 90%.

For some scientists gathered at Caltech, the event realized a dream long deferred. Sydney Meshkov said he had been waiting for this day for 15 years, since Congress killed the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas.

"If they hadn't canceled that, it would have already found everything this machine will," Meshkov said.

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