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.
I hope this thing lives up to its staggering potential. What an exciting time we are in. Great to see money spent on the pursuit of understanding, instead of the pursuit of war. Also great to see people from so many different nations coming together for a similar purpose.
(Note on the opening paragraph: There are probably many other civilizations in the universe who have done similar experiments long before this one was even conceived of...)
Ah, but the second paragraph did say "known universe". We can't generalize from only 1 example. All of our thoughts about other civilizations in the universe are just guesses. As far as we can yet prove, Earth is the only planet in the known universe with life on it.
Doesn't the discovery that the universe's expansion is accelerating change all our calculations about what we think was happening at the beginning of the universe? The article talks about when the first proton was formed and the size of the universe at that point. But weren't our ideas about the big bang all predicated on the idea that the expansion that Hubble saw was from a universe essentially coasting outward from an initial explosion?
Being that all matter is mostly empty space, doesn't smashing together protons reduce that empty space to nada...
Perhaps creating the world's first(and last) singularity???
Arguing over the internet is like racing in the Special Olympics, You might win, but...
I wonder what would be the results of this 10 billion dollar machine. Think about it the basic components of the universe itself...wow
What a remarkable and interesting machine. I'm so excited to see the outcome of this extraordinary experiment. It definitely had some people scared for their life. Nevertheless this is a great use of money despite the possibility that nothing could happen except for things that we have already recorded several times.
We would have been doing the same thing decades ago, except for the greed of a lot of Texas contractors. When a 60 minutes report horrified a lot of senators, they flipped off the switch and sent them packing.
Is this a uniquely American thing, or does it only infect the rich?