Brave New World of Physics?

What is the

Largest machine
Fastest racetrack
Coldest place
Emptiest space
Hottest spot

on earth?

It’s the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that is scheduled to be “turned on” September 10, 2008. The LHC is a gigantic scientific instrument near Geneva, Switzerland that is 100m underground. It is a particle accelerator where two beams of subatomic particles called hadrons will travel in opposite directions inside a circular accelerator, gaining energy with every 17-mile lap, and finally collide. Physicists are using the LHC to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang, by colliding the two beams head-on at very high energy. The collider is currently cooling down to its final operating temperature of approximately
-271.25 °C (1.9 Kelvin).

There are many hypotheses as to what will result from these collisions (including the end of the world as we know it). Collisions in the LHC will generate temperatures more than 100,000 times hotter than the heart of the sun. Physicists hope that under these conditions, protons and neutrons will ‘melt’, creating a state of matter that probably existed just after the Big Bang when the universe was still extremely hot. Measurements on the particles created in the collisions – their paths, energies, and their identities – will be recorded and analyzed. Physicists are also hoping that the LHC will help them understand why our universe appears to be composed almost entirely of matter, but no antimatter.

The physics behind the LHC is, of course, beyond the understanding of middle school students. However, the LHC is a wonderful example to use when talking about the differences between science and technology and that technology provides tools for investigations, inquiry, and analysis.

Facts and Figures
This fact sheet describes the amazing specifications of this machine.

A Giant Takes on Physics Biggest Questions
This 2007 article from the New York Times describes the history of the project and provides a description of Higgs-boson, aka the God particle.

Doomsday Fears Spark Lawsuit
This March 27, 2008 blog post by science editor Alan Boyle describes the lawsuit brought against the builders of the LHC “…over fears that the experiment might create globe-gobbling black holes or never-before-seen strains of matter that would destroy the planet.”

Twists in the Doomsday Debate
This August 19, 2008 blog post by Alan Boyle brings us up-to-date with the lawsuit and how the collider is still on schedule.

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