Assembly of the Muon Solenoid structure at CERN. The silver slab is being moved toward
the ring with a crane.
Outside Geneva, some 300 feet below the Jura Mountains and protected from the effect
of cosmic rays, a phalanx of more than 2,000 international scientists prepare to
fire up the world’s largest particle collider to probe the bounds of mass and matter
and answer some of the universe’s most mind-blowing riddles.
The hunt is on for new particles and phenomena in physics, said Nural Akchurin, chairman
of the Department of Physics and a project manager at the European Organization for
Nuclear Research, known as CERN. High on the list is the Higgs boson. It’s responsible
for giving mass to subatomic particles, which make up atoms and so-on until you have
a pencil, a rock or a Chrysler.
Simply put – but perhaps too simply – these scientists hope the $8 billion Large
Hadron Collider and Compact Muon Solenoid will prove the existence of matter’s smallest
building blocks when the switch gets flipped Oct. 21.
Akchurin and three other Texas Tech professors are responsible for building the calorimeters
– the catcher’s mitts – they hope will contribute to these historic discoveries of
phenomena that will usher in a new age of physics.
Barely cracking the spine of this “new physics” brand of particle science can overwhelm
the average Joe. For instance, some theories suggest there are actually 11 dimensions
instead of four. Another says we live in a multiverse instead of a universe.
Isaac Asimov or H.G. Wells contrived such ideas in fiction.
But many physicists believe these theories are halfway proven already, Akchurin said.
Their proof may come after the conclusion of the experiments at CERN.
Scientists hope to prove many theories with the experiments next summer. But perhaps
the most important seeks to prove or disprove the existence of a particle called
a Higgs boson – a theoretical particle in a barely perceptible dimension that some
refer to as the "god" particle. And if it exists, does Higgs give the subatomic points
their mass by holding the void of space together in strands of energy?
“In the most vanilla version of the Higgs theory,” he said, “You need some mechanism
through which you give mass to electrons and protons. Finding that mechanism could
close the loop in assigning known masses. If you have Higgs, you can explain everything
– or nearly most things.”
If true, science could finally explain what makes something have mass – what makes
a table a table and a chair a chair.
“This is much bigger than the atom bomb,” Akchurin said. “If this project finds nothing
but Higgs, that’s huge. If this experiment finds nothing at all, I think that’s equally
as big a deal because we’ll have to rethink all these other theories. Whatever comes
out of this will be interesting.”
Here’s the plan: Scientists will accelerate opposing beams of protons to near the
speed of light in the 17-mile, circular Large Hadron Collider.
As these protons are shot around the circular tunnel, the Compact Muon Solenoid will
catch what happens when these protons crash into each other.
Somewhere in the melee of these particles’ high-energy collisions, the researchers
hope to create fractions of fractions of fractions of subatomic particles and see
if the elusive Higgs decides to show its face.
And Sung-Won Lee, an assistant professor of Physics at Texas Tech University, will
watch the calorimeters and hope to catch Higgs and other theoretical particles.
As it stands, he said, Texas Tech’s equipment is ready for final dress rehearsal
and opening night.
“We are ready to go,” Lee said. “Currently we are testing our calorimeter system
again and again until the Large Hadron Collider starts operating in 2008. We don’t
want our detector to have any problems before it starts collecting real data. Our
detector will serve as a unique tool that will help us answer some of the most profound
questions about the universe.”
Igor Volobouev, also a physics professor at Texas Tech, said he is the most recent
member to join the university’s presence at CERN. His most recent work there involves
understanding the behavior of elementary particles from the spatial energy patterns
created by the particles in the calorimeters of the experiment.
He felt certain that Higgs and other theoretical particles will make an appearance
and confirm the Standard Model.
“This will be a triumph for the theory -- the Standard Model of particle interactions,”
Volobouev said. “At this point the theory is so well established that everybody in
our field expects the Higgs particle to be there. Not finding it where it is expected
would actually be much more surprising.
“Imagine that the planet Neptune is not seen anywhere near its predicted location
-- that would generate some buzz.”
Whatever should arise from the experiment’s result, Akchurin said, mankind will have
a greater understanding of the way the universe or multiverse works – at least the
five percent we can see.
“Every time we have done particle experiments, we have learned something new,” Akchurin
said. “If God is fair, hopefully it will happen again.”