Recreating the early universe

A giant particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider will simulate the early conditions of the universe by smashing particles to smithereens

  • LHCb: Location: Ferney-Voltaire, France; Size: 21 meters long, 10 meters high, 13 meters wide; Weight: 5,600 metric tons. Why is there something instead of nothing? Or, more specifically, why do we live in a universe that is composed almost solely of matter, rather than anti-matter? If the amounts of matter and anti-matter were equal, all particles would be destroyed, leaving behind a great void of nothingness. The LHCb, or Large Hadron Collider beauty, was designed to investigate the small differences between matter and antimatter by studying a particle called the "beauty quark." To capture beauty quarks created by the LHC, the LHCb will use sophisticated movable tracking detectors close to the path of the beams circling inside the Large Hadron Collider. 650 scientists from 13 countries will study the resulting data.

  • Super cold: The LHC will operate at 1.9 Kelvin (about 300 degrees Celsius below room temperature), colder than outer space. The beampipe's ultrahigh vacuum of 10-10 Torr (about 3 million molecules per cm3 ) is approximately equivalent to the vacuum pressure at an altitude above Earth of 1000 km. For comparison, the International Space Station's orbital altitude is 380 km; Super conducting: The total length of the superconducting wire for the LHC, the world's largest superconducting installation, is 250,000 km, enough to go 6.8 times around the equator. It consists of 6300 strands of niobium-titanium filaments, embedded in copper. Each filament is about one tenth of the thickness of a human hair. When ultracold, the wire conducts electricity without resistance; Super computing: The LHC experiments together will generate more than 10 million gigabytes of data every year (a stack of CDs 20 km high). LHC scientists have created a grid computing system in which more than 100 small and large computing centers share the responsibility for storing, processing, and analyzing the data. PC farms such as this one at CERN will provide the computing power; Control room: The CERN Control Centre combines the control functions for the accelerators, the cryogenic system, and the technical infrastructure. It has 39 work places.

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  • How it will collide protons: "Two proton beams travel in separate beam pipes passing through oppositely directed magnetic fields. At certain locations around the ring, called 'collision points,' there are no magnetic fields, and the protons are moving in straight lines," CERN explains. "At those places, the two beams can be brought together into a single vacuum enclosure and allowed to collide head-on."

  • The largest scientific instrument ever built examines the universe’s tiniest pieces of matter: Six experiments at the Large Hadron Collider will answer the big questions: What gives particles mass? Why is there something instead of nothing?

  • ALICE: Location: St. Genis-Pouilly, France; Detector size: 26 meters long, 16 meters high, 16 meters wide; Detector weight: 10,000 metric tons. The LHC has six experiments, each with its own detector. One of the largest is ALICE, which stands for "A Large Ion Collider Experiment." ALICE will smash lead ions to recreate the physical makeup of the universe just after the Big Bang. Physicists are looking for a state of matter known as quark-gluon plasma, which should be produced from the melting of protons and neutrons in temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the heart of the Sun. More than 1,000 scientists from 28 countries will examine how the quark-gluon plasma present just after the Big Bang progressively gave rise to the particles in our universe today.

  • TOTEM: Location: Cessy, France; Size: 440 meters long, five meters high, five meters wide; Weight: 20 metric tons. The TOTEM (TOTal Elastic and diffractive cross section Measurement) detector will examine physics that is not accessible to the general-purpose detectors (like CMS) by looking for particles produced very close to the LHC beams. "TOTEM will include detectors housed in specially designed vacuum chambers called 'Roman pots,' which are connected to the beam pipes in the LHC," CERN explains. "Roman pots will be placed in pairs at four locations near the collision point of the CMS experiments."

  • CMS: Location: Cessy, France; Size: 21 meters long, 15 meters wide, 15 meters high; Weight: 12,500 metric tons. The CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) uses the second general-purpose detector searching for the Higgs boson. ATLAS and CMS have the same scientific goals but use detector magnet systems that are designed differently. "Having two independently designed detectors is vital for cross-confirmation of any new discoveries," CERN explains. The huge CMS magnet is a cylindrical coil of superconducting cable that generates a magnetic field 100,000 times more powerful than the one which protects Earth from deadly radiation. Most of the detector's 12,500 metric tons are consumed by a steel yoke that confines the magnetic field.

  • ATLAS: Location: Meyrin, Switzerland; Size: 46 meters long, 25 meters high, 25 meters wide; Weight: 7,000 metric tons. ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) is one of two LHC experiments using general-purpose detectors designed to uncover the Higgs boson, the search for which may be the most commonly cited goal of the LHC. The Higgs is an elementary particle predicted by theory which is thought to endow all objects with mass. The Higgs has never been observed, but ATLAS -- with its eight 25-meter-long superconducting magnet coils arranged in a doughnut shape around a beam pipe -- is designed to suss out the elusive particle. ATLAS, designed not just to find the Higgs boson but to investigate the largest range of physics possible, will also search for particles that make up dark matter.

  • LHCf: Location: Meyrin, Switzerland; Size: Two detectors, each 30 centimeters long, 80 cm high, 10 cm wide; Weight: 40 kilograms each. Cosmic rays are at the heart of the smallest Large Hadron Collider experiment, LHCf (Large Hadron Collider forward). The detector will simulate cosmic rays in laboratory conditions by using forward particles created inside the LHC. "Cosmic rays are naturally occurring charged particles from outer space that constantly bombard the Earth's atmosphere," according to CERN. "Studying how collisions inside the LHC cause similar cascades of particles will help scientists to interpret and calibrate large-scale cosmic-ray experiments that can cover thousands of kilometers."

  • Where it is: Located at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator is in the final stages of construction within a 17-mile circular tunnel between 50 and 175 meters underneath France and Switzerland. The tunnel was constructed between 1983 and 1988 and formerly housed an electron-positron collider.

  • When the fun starts: Around mid-June, the first proton beams will be injected into the LHC, and particles will start smashing into each other about two months later. Collisions will occur 40 million times a second, creating all sorts of stuff not seen since long before the birth of our solar system. Pictured is the underground tunnel where proton beams will be steered in a circle by magnets.

  • Circumference: 26,659 meters; Particles accelerated: Protons and heavy ions of lead; Maximum beam energy: 7 tera-electronvolts (TeV), or 7x10 12 electronvolts, per proton. All protons combined will have an energy equivalent to a person in a 1500 kg vehicle driving at about 25,000 km per hour; Total number of magnets: Approximately 9,300; number of large dipole magnets, which steer the beam around the ring: 1,232. Each dipole magnet is 14.3 meters long and weighs around 35 tons; Magnetic field: 8.33 Tesla, or about 200,000 times the strength of the Earth's magnetic field, at beam energy of 7 TeV.

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