The Large Hadron Collider
The LHC is now operating in earnest
Mar 31st 2010 | From The Economist print edition
EIGHTEEN months ago CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, based near Geneva, switched on its latest toy. The toy in question was the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and it was going to find all sorts of wonderful things, ranging from the Higgs boson (which is needed to explain why mass exists in the first place) via dark matter (which is needed to explain why the universe is as massive as it is) to miniature black holes (the densest concentrations of mass possible, which journalists of a more scaremongering disposition confidently predicted would eat the Earth up as soon as the machine was switched on).
Nine days after the fanfare, however, a leak in the cooling system put things on hold and they did not restart until last November, with a few gentle collisions between low-energy protons.
Since then, the LHC has been cranking up for serious operation and on March 30th it passed a milestone. There was less trumpeting this time, but protons were made to hit each other at energies higher than any accelerator had managed before. The Tevatron, in America, has officially been relegated to second place.
Once, that might have been a signal for a bit of quiet European gloating. Hubris, however, has been followed by nemesis rather too often in this field for anybody to be making a song and dance about things. Though there was cheering and champagne in the control room when the first high-energy beams collided, sighs of relief are more the order of the day.
Assuming there are no further glitches, the energy of the collisions will be cranked up over the next few months and the new subatomic goodies will start pouring out of the machine and into the pages of physics journals. Finding the Higgs boson is as near a racing certainty as exists in science. For the rest, those who fancy pitting their knowledge of physics against the pros can do so. Paddy Power, an online bookmaker, is offering odds of 11 to 10 that dark matter will be found before black holes and 8 to 1 that black holes will be first. Dark energy, a mysterious force thought to drive the expansion of the universe, trails at 12 to 1. And for those who fancy a real outside bet, the firm is also offering 100 to 1 that the machine will discover God.
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