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Deus Ex Machina?


British super- technology is at the heart of the ‘biggest science experiment of all time’. With the clock ticking down to the big switch on, Martin Hickes asks, what is it all about?  

IT might seem like a glib sentiment, but at the flick of a switch this summer, science and mankind literally will ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’.

In what is being hailed as the ‘biggest science experiment of all time’, scientists worldwide are aiming to find the missing piece at the heart of the seemingly unfathomable jigsaw of the universe.

Some $5bn and 15 years down the line – including a multi million pound UK contribution - it is hoped the switch on of a new ‘atom smasher’  in Geneva, will bring about the greatest revolution in our understanding of ‘everything’ since Einstein and Newton.

And in the Lilliputian world of the very small, British super-technology is at the very heart of the machine powering science’s next big step.

It might sound like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but possibly as early as August 9, the Large Hadron Collider, at CERN on the French/Swiss border, will power up.

Critics have suggested the huge new atomic collider  - probably the most powerful machine on the planet - has the potential to be the biggest ‘white elephant’ of all time, bearing little relevance to the ‘real’ world.

At a £73m per year cost for CERN membership for the UK, and notwithstanding some safety concerns regarding the creation of possible earthly ‘mini black holes’, will it really have been worth it?

Professor Frank Close, from Oxford University, Prof Bob Cywinski, from the University of Leeds, and Dr Dan Tovey from the University of Sheffield, say for positive reasons, the scientific world is holding its collective breath – and so should we.

Sheffield’s team, led by Dr. Tovey, has worked exhaustively with more than 2000 collaborators from across the world for the past fifteen years to build ATLAS, the largest of the huge collider’s particle detectors, the key component of the colossal experiment.

Nine thousand superconducting magnets will whip proton beams in opposite directions around the 27 km-long ring and smash them together at unprecedented energy levels.

The Sheffield team has built a giant device to spot any brand new subatomic particles created in the debris, in effect,  possible footprints of a ‘new theory of the universe’.

Sheffield is one of twelve collaborating institutions forming ATLAS-UK, which together built key elements of ATLAS, including the majority of the detector systems at the heart of the experiment.

They are now eagerly awaiting the first results.

Dr Tovey says:

“It’s a huge concept to grasp, but whatever we see, we can be sure that it will fundamentally change our understanding of the Universe. We can all be justifiably proud that British technology is at the heart of the biggest science experiment ever.

“The leap forward that the LHC represents almost guarantees that we shall see something interesting. We hope to find evidence for a new particle called the Higgs boson, sometimes called the ‘God Particle’, which is believed to be the origin of mass.

“If we can, it will underpin our established theories of ‘how the universe works’. If we can’t, then we are certain to find something else even more exciting and we’ll have to go back to the drawing board for new theories. The sense of anticipation worldwide is enormous.”

“We might also find evidence for other exotic particles , or for extra dimensions beyond the four we already know.”

Prof Close, professor of Physics at Exeter College, Oxford, and an eminent popularist of science, says: “It is no exaggeration to say it is certainly the biggest scientific experiment so far.

“In 1908, who could have imagined the World Wide Web, the Apollo missions etc? What is certain is that the LHC will reveal what the universe was like much nearer to the universe’s ‘Big Bang’ than we have ever seen  - and give us the greatest possible clues we have ever had as to why we are here and where we came from.

“Only ‘nature’ knows the answers today on the big picture; but soon we will. What they will be is as unimaginable as my analogy from a century ago.

“For years, mankind has relied on the so-called ‘Standard Model of Physics’, covering the ‘classic’ laws of Einstein and Newton on how things ‘work’ on the large scale, and the ‘quantum’ level of the very small scale.

 “Actually, what effectively we will have is a time machine that recreates the universe as it was at the start of time. When the accelerator is activated, it will be like opening a new window.”

 “Although at first sight this might sound like ‘yet more particles’ there are hints in the shadows of a whole new vista.”

 The design of the LHC in itself is worthy of huge admiration; this in itself has been a little like a landing on Mars, let alone the Moon.

“When we combine this effort with the legacy of all the 20th C gave us in terms of our understanding of the physics and universe, it not difficult to see why the whole scientific world is looking towards the ‘switch on’ on the Continent this summer.”

But away from the ‘Big Science’ others says the super atom smasher is already having positive knock-on effective in terms of business – including the economy.

Prof Robert Cywinski, a condensed matter specialist from the University of Leeds, has no doubt as to the relevance of the experiment to everyday life.

He says:

“Einstein’s theories of relativity not only revolutionised our ways of thinking in the early 1900s but caught the popular imagination of the ‘man on the street’.

“I think there’s the very great prospect that what happens at CERN from this summer, one way or another, will capture the popular imagination away from what non-scientists sometimes see as the arcane world of particle physics.

“The small stuff which makes up our universe is real – the problem in ‘our’ world is we only see the bigger picture – a chair, ‘us’, a newspaper. But for scientists hunting the super small, what’s about to happen  is as exciting as any ‘Indiana Jones’ adventure – and everyone else should be excited about it too.

 “To answer ‘Big Questions’ about the universe, we need very high energies, comparable to those available in the Big Bang. We therefore need high energy particle accelerators, which in turn are very large and very expensive.

“However the expenditure on these accelerators also provides jobs in technical, research and development. There are now more than 15,000 particle accelerators in the world, but only about 100 of these are used for physics; others are used in industry.

“But by far the greatest number is used in medicine for cancer radiotherapy and radiopharmaceutical production.”

A new type of web – ‘The Grid’ – will link computers across the globe to enable access to results from the huge experiment as they roll out. The Sheffield team is also playing a key role in this regard.


James Gillies, spokesman from CERN, says: “The LHC is a discovery machine, set to change our view of the universe profoundly, and it is also a driver for innovation. Not only will it help us better understand this great, wonderful universe we live in, but the technologies developed for the LHC will have an impact on our everyday lives.”

Finally it seems, in the world of atom smashing, Star Trek’s most famous split infinitive is about to come true.




Poss side bar blobs:

  • For years scientists have known everything is made of atoms, protons, neutrons etc, which have within them Russian doll-like quarks, gluons and a myriad of other particles.
  • It’s hoped the colossal impacts will generate most significantly the ‘missing link’ among all the tiny building blocks which make up literally everything.
  • And if this itself can be achieved, it will point the way to uniting all the basic forces of nature – gravity and three others – and act as a major signpost towards the ‘Holy Grail’ of popular science, the so-called ‘Theory of Everything’.