Scientists from around the world, including several from UW-Madison, on Monday were anxiously awaiting what could be a historic period of discovery about the nature of our universe at the 17-mile-long particle collider in Europe.
Early Tuesday, the researchers who have been speeding particles around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a $10 billion underground loop of steel and magnets near the Swiss-French border, were to take their next step toward answering crucial and puzzling questions about the nature of our physical world.
The plan was to smash together two beams of particles at energy levels three times those ever achieved by a collider and see whether new forms of matter emerged, including perhaps the long-sought "God particle."
Among those working Monday night at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, was Sau Lan Wu, a UW-Madison physics professor who leads a group of American scientists working on one of the collider's main detectors.
Wu has been working on the collider and anticipating this moment for years, and the excitement was evident in her voice.
"I started working on this experiment in 1993," Wu said. "So you can see how long I've been waiting. ... Everybody is nervous."
Wu said the major discoveries that are anticipated with the LHC aren't likely to come right away. The collider is expected to operate for the next two years at the energy levels achieved this week. Then it will be shut down and retooled for even more power over the next decade. But to see the machine reach Monday's energy levels is a historic accomplishment in and of itself, Wu added.
Strange tales and wild theories
Such big science does not come easy. Shortly after the LHC was first powered up in 2008, flawed welds caused a failure that set the project back. And publicity surrounding the collider has included strange tales that it could create a black hole that would swallow Earth.
Researchers, however, have successfully debunked such wild theories and nursed the collider back to health. Now, according to UW-Madison physicist Wesley Smith, who is helping lead work on another of the collider's main detectors, scientists were at the gateway to a new frontier, ready to push it open.
What lies on the other side could change how we understand physical matter or even reveal new dimensions, but most anticipated is the possibility that a particle called the Higgs boson will be revealed. First theorized in 1964 by the British physicist Peter Higgs, the particle would fill in a glaring gap in our understanding of the physical world.
That model, Smith said, does not account for what makes matter solid. In other words, when it comes right down to it, scientists cannot really explain why we can't pass our hand through a solid object, such as a door or a desktop. The formula used to explain the solid nature of things is missing something — the Higgs boson.
"We're still trying to understand why things have mass," Smith said. "The nature of the force that holds things together is still shrouded in mystery."
A daunting task
Detecting the particle, however, remains a daunting task. Colliding two beams of energy is much harder than it sounds — even if you have a $10 billion contraption with which to make the attempt. One researcher compared the process to hurling two needles at each other from either side of an ocean and hoping they hit each other in the middle. So sensitive are the beams that researchers have to take into account the moon and its pull on the Earth's crust, which can bend the collider.
The collider will bash particles together up to 600 million times per second, at nearly the speed of light.
Once a collision is achieved, Smith said, the real challenge begins — figuring out what to make of the debris left from the crash.
"It's like throwing a Swiss watch against the wall and then trying to figure out from the parts how to put it together again," Smith said.
But the potential solutions to deep and meaningful mysteries are worth such intense effort, Smith added. We have benefitted in practical ways from these large experiments, he said. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN to handle the oceans of information generated by earlier colliders. Laser and magnetic imaging and other technologies have come from such projects.
At the heart of such science, however, is the powerful yearning to know, said Smith, and that makes the collider important to everyone.
"These are fundamental questions we are asking," said Smith. "How did we get here? What do we come from? What is the world around us made of?"