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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

And Away We Go

Y'all might remember not too long ago when I wrote about some of the cool stuff scientists in Europe were doing. Today, either a "useless" quest or the end of the world as we know it will begin in Europe. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is being fired up at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland and France. Sure, there are people who are worried that scientists, in their quest to find the Higg's Boson (what holds things together, basically), will accidentally create black holes that will stabilize and destroy the world. Other people, like Steven Hawking, don't think that they'll even find the "God Particle," which will be even more important than if they would find it. Here's what he had to say:
Renowned British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has bet 100 dollars (70 euros) that a mega-experiment this week will not find an elusive particle seen as a holy grail of cosmic science, he said Tuesday.

..."The LHC will increase the energy at which we can study particle interactions by a factor of four. According to present thinking, this should be enough to discover the Higgs particle," Hawking told BBC radio.

"I think it will be much more exciting if we don't find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again. I have a bet of 100 dollars that we won't find the Higgs," added Hawking, whose books including "A Brief History of Time" have sought to popularize study of stellar physics.
Yahoo put together a time line that shows all the fun stuff that has been going on at CERN. Here are some highlights:
1954 - CERN was founded as one of Europe's first joint ventures, partly as a way to share the rising costs of running nuclear physics facilities. Its 12 founding members were Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.
1957 - The Synchrocyclotron, CERN's first accelerator, was built to provide beams for particle and nuclear physics experiments. It was later used in nuclear physics, astrophysics and medical physics, with the later developed Proton Synchotron dedicated to particle physics. That machine accelerated protons for the first time in November 1959.
...1971 - The Intersecting Storage Rings, the world's first proton-proton collider, produced the first-ever proton-proton collisions, a precursor to CERN's colliding-beam projects.
1973 - CERN announces an experiment in its Gargamelle bubble chamber shows the existence of neutral currents, a major advance in understanding the particles of matter and how they interact.
1995 - Team at CERN's Lbow Energy Antiproton Ring facility create atoms of anti-hydrogen in the first time that anti-matter particles were brought together to make complete atoms, helping explain the universe's asymmetry between matter and anti-matter.
2002 - Two CERN experiments create and trap thousands of atoms of anti-matter in a "cold" state, meaning the atoms are slow-moving and can exist for long enough to be studied before they meet ordinary matter and annihilate.
Yeah, they've been keeping busy... doing all kinds of scientific goodness. One of their scientists actually developed the world wide web (as opposed to AlGore.) To quote the time line: "1990 - CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee invents the worldwide web to meet demands for information-sharing between scientists. Berners-Lee defined basic concepts like the URL, http and html and also wrote the first browser and server software."

Here are five facts that Yahoo thought were interesting about CERN and the LHC.
* Though built to study the smallest known building blocks of all things -- known as particles -- the LHC is the largest and most complex machine ever made. It has a circumference of 27 km (17 miles) and lies 100 metres (330 feet) under the ground, straddling French and Swiss territory.
* At full power, trillions of protons will race around the LHC accelerator ring 11,245 times a second, traveling at 99.99 percent the speed of light. It is capable of engineering 600 million collisions every second.
* When two beams of protons collide, they will generate temperatures more than 100,000 times hotter than the heart of the sun, concentrated within a minuscule space. Meanwhile, the cooling system that circulates superfluid helium around the LHC's accelerator ring keeps the machine at minus 271.3 degrees Celsius (minus 456.34 degrees Fahrenheit).
* To collect data of up to 600 million proton collisions per second, physicists and scientists have built devices to measure the passage time of a particle to a few billionths of a second. The trigger system also registers the location of particles to millionths of a metre.
* The data recorded by the LHC's big experiments will fill around 100,000 dual-layer DVDs each year. Tens of thousands of computers around the world have been harnessed in a computing network called "The Grid" that will hold the information.
I guess if Geneva is still there tonight, we'll know the black hole thing never happened.

UPDATE #1: Several people have pointed out that they're actually going to collide anything today. That won't happen until sometime in October. So, the "end of the world as we know it" is postponed until next month. Carry on.

UPDATE #2: I've been reading through the comments at this article. The comments tend to fall into two categories- either "too cool" or "that money could be spent better." Thinking through the arguments (which are...well, some are quite goofy), I tend to agree with the "too cool" over the "money could have been spent better" crowd. Yeah, it's very cool, and the geek/nerd in me is excited about what they may or may not find. For those who think it has no real-life applications, look at all of the new items are in our homes and lives today because of the original space program. Who knows what might come from this project?

As for the " that money could be spent better" argument. I'm sure it could have been spent better. I'm also sure it wouldn't have been spent better. Giving government any money is always a bad plan if you want it "spent well," even more so if the government is a socialist-leaning one like the EU. They wouldn't have spent the money to cure AIDS or feed the poor in Africa. They would have found some way to waste the money. It's what governments do. For all the shouting that "something must be done about X", it just doesn't happen. They actually need the poor and ill to promote the need for more money for whatever pet project they have going in the background.

The $9 billion dollars weren't actually wasted, anyway. I'm guessing, but half of that money probably went to pay the workers that built the LHC and the scientists and engineers who designed it and will run it.

Two more quick notes on LHC. First, Texas was supposed to have its very own collider. The Superconducting Supercollider was supposed to be built south of Dallas. Granted, I'm not completely sold on the idea that governments should be involved in theoretical science, but I'm also not sold on the idea that our country can afford to let its scientific stature fall much more than it has already. The SSC would have gone a long way toward attracting business to the area, promoting study of science, and boosting our scientific street cred in the world scientific community.

Finally- my favorite comment from the CNN article didn't offer any profound insight, but was quite amusing to my nerdy side: "Besides, I'd quite like a mini black-hole all of my own. I'd call it Steve."

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