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Heaven Can't Wait


Yorkshire science and know-how lies at the heart of plans to give the world’s biggest science experiment a major turbo boost well into the next decade. Martin Hickes reports.

To some, it’s perhaps fitting that in the search for the so-called ‘God-particle’, Yorkshire technology should be leading the race to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Two years ago, few had heard of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – the giant atom smasher designed to unveil the smallest and most secret particles of physics and the universe.

But as it is prepared for a well-earned maintenance break this December – the world’s biggest machine – which has Yorkshire science and technology at its heart – has firmly entered the public consciousness – and not without some degree of trepidation.

Sheffield-based scientists overviewing key operations at the heart of the gigantic atom smasher at CERN near Geneva are now already looking forward to the next stages of the world’s largest experiment, which will eventually see the already colossal machine turn into a Super Large Hadron Collider.

Since the machine’s restart after its much publicised break down just nine days after it was switched on in 2008, world record energies – of the type almost unimaginable to the man on the street - have been achieved at CERN.

And while the elusive Higgs Boson – one of the key particles that underpins what physicists call the Standard Model of Physics – has yet to be identified, a plethora of data both confirming and revealing new ideas to scientists has been generated .

Now, and over the next decade, Yorkshire know-how is spearheading a new type of space race – one which is looking to the very small rather than the very large.

Scientists across the world reckon Nobel Prizes could be awarded to its lucky victors.

In view of this, plans are being made not only to increase the energy of the collisions in the LHC over time, but also to exponentially increase the rate at which they occur.

In March, CERN was able to trumpet a world record collision energy of seven trillion electron volts (7 TeV) by smashing together two proton beams which had been fired around its 27km long circuit, beating its previous best of 2.4 TeV set in December last year, in itself a mind-bogglingly high energy level.

The hope is that the LHC's record-breaking smash-ups could uncover evidence of dark matter, discover new forces in physics, unveil new dimensions, and even find the Higgs boson, aka the God particle, a theoretical particle that physicists think is responsible for mass in the universe, among other key finds.

Now, after a phenomenally successful 2010, scientists are hoping the multi-million pound accelerator -not long out of its commissioning phase - will continue its outstanding performance in 2011.

While the LHC at CERN is without doubt the biggest and most powerful in the world, it has only just been run-in compared to its older rival - the less-powerful Tevatron collider in the US.

Prof Dan Tovey, and his team from the University of Sheffield, have been key observers of the running of the LHC to date.

Dan and his team at Sheffield have played a major role in designing and building ATLAS, one of the huge particle detectors situated on the 27km-long LHC loop.

And he says when it comes to the search for the super small in an attempt to explain the super large; the best is yet to come.

Prof Tovey says:

“After some maintenance is undertaken over the winter period, the current plan is to continue to run the Large Hadron Collider at collision energy of seven trillion electron volts (7 TeV) throughout 2011. Then the LHC will shut down for a year to prepare the machine for 14 TeV collisions – it’s maximum operating energy.

“Both the LHC and ATLAS – into which the University of Sheffield has had a major input  - have far outstripped our expectations to date.

“The LHC is a bit like a brand new, very high performance car – when it is first commissioned we know what it is capable of, but of course nobody runs it up to its top speed straight away. For that reason, tests and performance improvements have been run in stages, culminating in March’s record collision energy; the LHC has effectively been changing to higher and higher gears.

“Apart from the high energy collisions which are now taking place, we of course have to be able to detect what is happening during these huge impacts, and this is where ATLAS comes in.

“Just as important as the collision energy is the rate at which particle collisions take place inside the LHC.  This has increased by a factor of almost a million since March, allowing a vast amount of data to be collected.

“But this is just the start – by the end of next year we hope to have increased the total number of collisions twenty-fold.

“If all the data from ATLAS were to be recorded, this would fill 100,000CDs per second.  The data rate is also equivalent to 50 billion telephone calls at the same time. ATLAS actually only records a fraction of the data (those that may show signs of new physics) and that rate is equivalent to 27 CDs per minute.

“This experiment is the culmination of half a lifetime of effort and the excitement is unlike anything we have experienced as scientists.”

ATLAS is learning about the basic forces that have shaped our Universe since the beginning of time and that will determine its fate.

Among the possible unknowns are the origin of mass, extra dimensions of space, unification of fundamental forces, and evidence for dark matter candidates in the Universe.

Prof Tovey adds: “The current plan is that the machine will be shut down in 2012 to replace the super-conducting splicings which were the cause of the accident in 2008.

“In the spring of 2013, it will be started up again with the goal of reaching the even higher 14 TeV collision energy for which it was originally designed.

“It will then run for three years until 2016 when it will be shut down again to upgrade the injection system which should allow the collision rate to be increased even further.

“By the end of 2019 the LHC should have met its design goals, which are to collect 6,000 times as much data as now at collision energy of 14 TeV.

 “After that, the proposal is to upgrade the LHC to enable it to become a Super Large Hadron Collider to increase the collision rate by about a factor of ten to further improve the chance of finding rare particles.

“It is like looking for a needle in a haystack and the more data we can collect, the better the chance we have of finding the Higgs Boson.”

The Higgs Boson – sometimes called the God particle – has become emblematic of the quest for CERN’s search for the very building blocks of everything.

Scientists for years have known matter is made up of small particles even within atoms – protons, neutrons, quarks etc.

Many of these particles are linked to one of the four fundamental forces which exist in the universe – two nuclear forces, an electromagnetic force, and gravity.

The Higgs Boson is important scientists say as it would help explain the origin of mass in the universe – a stupendously important concept.

So much so that the scientific community reckons Nobel Prizes will be up for grabs by the finders of the yet still hypothetical particle. And scientists at CERN want to be the first.

Prof Tovey says:

“In terms of energy levels, the Higgs is pretty much on the low end of the scale – we think it exists within a certain energy ‘window’ which we can easily achieve at the LHC.

“The difficulty lies in distinguishing it from the other, more mundane, particles which are also produced at the LHC. To do this takes a lot of data. To use the haystack analogy again, if only one haystack among many contains a needle, the more haystacks you examine the more likely you are to find the needle.”

A special LHC Computing Grid has even been established to number crunch the colossal amounts of data the atom collisions generate.

The LHC is not alone in the search for the very small. The Tevatron collider at Fermilab in the US, the second largest collider in the world, is also on the hunt, but is increasingly being made to look pedestrian compared to the LHC.

Nevertheless, it has the advantage of having been running consistently for ten years and so has been able to record a very large amount of data, albeit with lower energy collisions.

The race to find new particles such as the Higgs Boson is therefore increasingly resembling a race between a tortoise and a hare. Scientists working on the LHC hope that the hare will win.

In a realm of superlatives, talk is even circulating of what could follow the LHC and its proposed ‘Super’ upgrade – namely the Very Large Hadron Collider. But as of yet, such a scientific leviathan remains in the imaginations of the CERN boffins and others worldwide.

What is certain is that in the coming years, the search for the building blocks of existence will be ramped up markedly. Much – including a multi-million pound contribution from the UK to CERN -  is at stake.

Will a Yorkshireman discover ‘God’s particle’? Only time will tell.

Prof Frank Close, of Exeter College, Oxford, one of the world’s leading authorities and respected authors on particle physics says:

“Twenty years ago many of us thought the LHC would be impossible - it was so far ahead of known technology that there were any number of show-stoppers that could have derailed the enterprise. The fact that it exists, and works, is itself a testimony to human genius - and perspiration!

"Does the Higgs Boson exist? Are weird phenomena that no-one has yet thought of, about to be discovered? Only Nature knows. Soon, humans will too"

For the moment, in the search for the secrets of the universe, with pounds, pride and prizes at stake, it seems heaven can’t wait. 

  • The ATLAS Collaboration comprises over 2500 members from 169 universities in 37 countries. The Sheffield ATLAS group is active in all aspects of the experiment, from its design and construction through to the analysis of the final data. Prof Dan Tovey currently leads the UK scientists working on ATLAS.
  • It is estimated that the amount of data being generated by the LHC is the equivalent of 1 per cent of the total data output of all the computers in the world at any given time.
  • The use of ‘The God Particle’ ref the Higgs Boson is a popular media phrase – scientists rarely refer it as such, but like the LHC, it is increasingly passing into popular culture.
  • Prof Close’s new book, Neutrino, published by Oxford University Press, is available now.