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May 1, 2009 — Editor’s note: This story was originally posted in September 2008, but after seeing The Daily Show With Jon Stewart on April 29, 2009, and John Oliver's fantastic report on the issue, we couldn't help but re-post.
Today was perhaps the most exciting day in a more than a decade for scientists and science lovers around the world. Not since the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke into fragments and collided with Jupiter in 1994 has there been as much news and excitement over a single event in the scientific community.
Rather than corresponding to a massive, cosmic event, today’s news focused on the sub-atomic level. Scientists flipped the switch on the world’s largest particle collider – known as the Large Hadron Collider – in the first major test of the $10 billion project.
It will be at least a year before the Large Hadron Collider reaches full power, yet today marks the beginning of a new frontier in particle physics.
Buried 330 feet beneath the Swiss and French Alps, the 17-mile long collider is the most powerful in the world. Two photon beams will be accelerated to near the speed of light within the tunnels, and when they collide a collection of even smaller particles and anti-matter will appear, disappear, and shower onto nearby detectors.
There are many reasons why the LHC has sparked so much interest in the scientific community. The LHC represents the largest (and most expensive) terrestial scientific experiment ever undertaken by mankind. While the Europeans have taken the lead, 60 nations in all have contributed to the event, including $531 million from the United States.
The reason for such high expenditures is in the potentially groundbreaking science. Many are hoping that some of the most puzzling questions in science — from those of dark matter, dark energy, and the possible existence of hidden dimensions of time and space — can be answered by the LHC.
Much as the quantum theories of the early 1900s led to many of today’s everyday technological devices, the discoveries made at the LHC promise to transform common life far into the future.
Among the most exciting possible discoveries is the existence of the so-called “God Particle,” or Higgs boson, which would help confirm current theories of how particles acquire mass.
String theorists will also be on the lookout for evidence of other dimensions. The LHC reaches much higher energies than its American counterpart, the Fermilab Particle Accelerator in Batavia, Ill., which may allow for particles to zip into other dimensions and then suddenly reappear again – proving the existence of other dimensions interwoven into our universe.
Such a discovery would be a major victory for string theory, a description of the Universe which posits that the most basic particles in the universe are miniscule, vibrating strings. Various permutations of the theory have come and gone, but all require multiple dimensions, and none have yet developed a comprehensive, cogent, mathematical description of the universe.
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