For an illustrated month-by-month calendar of the science stories to watch for in 2007, click 'View Photos' at left
The Answer Machine Arrives
The world´s most powerful physics laboratory will take on questions we can´t yet imagine
Later this year, the $8-billion science experiment known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will start uncovering clues to some of the biggest mysteries in physics. It was designed more than a decade ago to answer a specific checklist of questions: Why does matter have mass? Does every particle have an unseen partner? In the intervening decade, however, physicists have been developing new ideas about how the universe might be put together. If all goes well, the machine-a 16.8-mile-long proton smasher buried outside Geneva, Switzerland-could discover startling phenomena that could validate (or refute) those nascent theories about the origin and structure of the cosmos.
Jonathan Feng, a theoretical physicist at the University of California at Irvine, has suggested that collisions at the LHC might produce dark matter-the mysterious, invisible stuff that astronomers believe makes up 80 percent of the matter in the universe. This is not something the original planners had in mind. â€The idea that the LHC would help with the big cosmological questions was completely off the map when it was proposed,â€ Feng says.
The same holds true for the search for extra spatial dimensions, which for years were thought to be out of the reach of modern experimental technology. Recently, though, theorists have discussed the possibility of finding indirect proof at the LHC. â€You´re not going to see the extra dimensions,â€ says physicist Konstantin Matchev of the University of Florida. Instead, he explains, particles such as electrons will suddenly become more massive as they travel through that added space. Matchev and his colleagues will be scouring the data for those telltale weight gains.
But even if the LHC fails to reveal either of these events, it should still be a tremendous success. The discovery of the Higgs boson, the â€God particleâ€ that may give matter its mass, is a near guarantee, according to most physicists. More important, the LHC is going to generate conditions and energy levels that haven´t existed since the big bang. That means it could produce phenomena physicists never even thought to imagine. â€The great thing about science,â€ Feng says, â€is that you never know what Nature has up her sleeve.â€ -Gregory Mone