The proton is a persistent thing. The first one crystallized out of the universe's chaotic froth just 0.00001 of a second after the big bang, when existence was squeezed into a space about the size of the solar system. The rest quickly followed. Protons for the most part have survived unchanged through the intervening 13.8 billion years—joining with electrons to make hydrogen gas, fusing in stars to form the heavier elements, but all the while remaining protons. And they will continue to remain protons for billions of years to come. All, that is, except the unlucky few that wait in a tank of hydrogen gas 300 feet beneath the small Swiss town of Meyrin, a few miles north of the Geneva airport. Those—those are in trouble.
By the time you read this, a strong electric field will have begun to strip the electrons away from the protons in that hydrogen gas. Radio waves will push the protons, naked and charged, forward, accelerating them through the first of what can reasonably be called the most impressive series of tubes in the known universe (Internet be damned, Senator Stevens). The tubes in this Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have one purpose: Pump ever more energy into these protons, push them hard against Einstein's insurmountable cosmic speed limit c.
And then, the sudden stop. Head-on, a single proton will meet a single proton in the center of a cage of 27 million pounds of silicon and superconducting coils of niobium and titanium. And it will cease to be. These protons will collide with such tremendous energy, so much focused power, that they will transmute. They will metamorphose into muons and neutrinos and photons. All of that, for our purposes, is junk. But about once in a trillion collisions—no one knows for sure—they should turn into something we have never before observed. These protons, these nanoscopic specks of matter that together bear the energy of a high-speed train, will reach out into the hypothetical and bring a little bit of it back.
We have some good guesses about what they will become. They could turn into a missing particle called the Higgs boson—thus completing, through actual observation, the Standard Model of the universe, which describes everything yet known. Or they might vanish into dark matter, and so satisfy the demands of the astronomers who have for decades observed that the universe is suffused with mass of unknown origin and composition. Or—and this is what everyone is really hoping for—these transmuting protons will defy our imagination. They will show us the unexpected, the unanticipated, the (temporarily) unintelligible. The humble proton, just maybe, will surprise us.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.