NEWS

Smashing protons to deliver answers

While most people in Tucson were sound asleep Tuesday morning, scientists were busy creating the largest collision ever achieved in a particle accelerator, hoping to answer questions about how the universe was formed.


The accelerator, known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), is based in Geneva, Switzerland, at the headquarters of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Featuring components manufactured at the UA, the collider is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built.


""There was no new physics discovered on Tuesday,"" said Elliott Cheu, a UA physics professor who is part of the UA-LHC team. ""However, we did discover that all of the hard work put in by many thousands of people has paid off. The experiments worked extremely well and we're looking forward to the results.""


The LHC works by smashing proton beams together as they race around a 16.5-mile underground tunnel on the Swiss-France border. When protons collide with such energy, they break apart into elementary particles, the smallest components of matter in the universe.


""As far as the science, the new energy frontier opened up by the LHC will hopefully allow us to solve, or at least make progress on, some of the most important problems in physics,"" said Ken Johns, a UA physics professor.


Scientists hope that such high-energy collisions will effectively recreate conditions of the universe in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang.


""While we have theories that may explain these mysteries, the bottom line is that we won't know the answers until we do the experiment,"" Johns said.


The first collisions in the LHC produced energy of 7 trillion electron volts, more than three times the energy that had ever been achieved in a particle accelerator before.


""It is tremendously exciting,"" Johns said. ""The potential for new discovery is enormous. Even though UA is one of nearly 200 universities from 40 countries throughout the world (that contributed to the experiment), we in fact have had a disproportionately large influence on the design of the experiment.""


One of those design influences is the ATLAS detector component of the collider. ATLAS, which stands for A Toroidal LHC Apparatus and was manufactured at the UA, is a highly advanced detector designed to process massive data input and display the results of high-energy proton collisions that occur in the collider.


""I'm guessing that our ATLAS detector will be taking data for 20 to 30 years, with a few upgrades to improve its capability along the way,"" said John Rutherfoord, UA physics professor. ""Discoveries should be spread out over this time. We won't have to wait decades for the earlier discoveries, if all goes well.""


The LHC will run for two years at its current energy capacity for two years before being shut down for a year to prepare for 14 trillion electron-volt collisions.


""Of course, we don't really know what we'll find,"" Rutherfoord said. ""That's part of the fun. But we do have ideas what might be there to find. We are also prepared to be surprised to find things we never imagined.""


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