OSU professors have a hand in record-setting particle accelerator
Published: Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Updated: Friday, June 15, 2012 23:06
The Large Hadron Collider set a world record for the highest-energy man-made particle collisions on Tuesday.
The LHC won't destroy the world, but it might reshape humanity's understanding of it, according to Ohio State scientists.
The LHC, a project of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is the largest particle accelerator ever built. It has a circumference of almost 17 miles and is buried nearly 570 feet beneath the Franco-Swiss border.
"The basic idea is to use it to collide elementary particles at very high energies to study the laws of physics," said Michael Lisa, a physics professor at OSU working on the LHC.
To do this, the LHC collides atoms and subatomic particles at high speeds.
"You have an accelerator which is a doughnut-shaped ring of magnets," said T. Y. Ling, another OSU physics professor working on a project at the LHC. "Particles go around, getting their energy boosted. The LHC has two of these beams. They go around in opposite directions and collide."
The LHC can function in two ways. It can either collide heavy atoms, like lead, or protons, tiny subatomic particles found in the nucleus of each atom.
The heavy atomic collisions are designed to create a new state of matter which resembles the state of the very early universe. Matter is the physical substance which all objects are composed of.
"If you want to understand the rest of the universe, you should understand this state," said Thomas Humanic, a physics professor at OSU working with lead-lead collisions at the LHC.
The proton-proton collisions are designed to test a fundamental model of physics. This model predicts that the LHC will produce a particle known as the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is thought to be the source of all mass in the universe.
"If we discover the Higgs, that's a miraculous discovery," said Harris Kagan, a physics professor at OSU working on protonic collisions. "If it's not there, there must be something else. It's a win-win situation."
The LHC is intended to do this sort of fundamental research.
"One can talk about dividends, but it's ultimately about finding out secrets of nature for the sake of finding out secrets," Ling said.
Finding practical applications for the research might take some time.
"If there's an application, it's well beyond my imagination," Lisa said.
However, Lisa also said that Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, doubted that there would be any applications for his work on the atom. That work is now the foundation of many modern technologies like nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.
The basic research alone is likely to go on for decades.
"A facility like this always gets operated over 10-15 years," said K. K. Gan, an OSU physics professor working on proton-proton collisions at the LHC. "We'll be working for at least a decade and maybe way beyond. We're in it for the long haul."
The LHC is only running at half of its full 14-teraelectron volt capacity right now.
"That's 14 trillion electron volts," Lisa said. "Light that we can see has one electron volt."
Humanic said that the LHC will achieve full power in 2013, after upgrades.
These high-energy collisions have concerned some non-physicists. They fear that the collisions will create micro black holes.
"There's some theory that predicts the production of micro black holes," Ling said. "But these are not the same as celestial black holes."
Theory predicts that these micro black holes will disappear harmlessly, but some objectors aren't satisfied by theory alone.
"One thing that's an experimental fact is that the earth is being bombarded by much higher energy rays," Humanic said. "The proof is that we still exist."
The LHC has had other problems, too. On March 27, 2007, one of the magnets used to direct the particles broke. Another delay occurred due to an electrical fault on Sept. 19, 2008.
"I was actually on shift when it blew up in 2008, though it wasn't my fault," Humanic said.
He said the failures have been more than just a disappointment to scientists.
"On the political level, it was an embarrassment to CERN," Humanic said. "There were all sorts of parties planned for the start up." CERN is the acronym for the European organization for nuclear research, which runs the LHC.
The breakdowns also had a large impact on scientists at OSU.
"I was meant to be on sabbatical and I couldn't take the trip," Kagan said. "I have post-docs and students who couldn't get their degrees and other jobs."
David Truesdale, an OSU graduate student in physics who wasn't able to complete his thesis on time due to the breakdowns, wasn't available for comment.
Nicolas Bock, another physics graduate student at OSU, was grateful for the failures. He joined work on the LHC shortly before the failure.
Bock said that the failures gave him more time to learn how to do his
So far, Bock has enjoyed his experience working on the LHC. When he began, he didn't know many details, but he has learned a lot in the process.
"It matched my expectations and superseded them," he said of the research.
A major reason for Bock's success is his colleagues.
"It's a really nice place to work," he said of the LHC facility. "People are very friendly, and it's very international."
There are more than 10,000 scientists working on the LHC from more than 100 countries, according to the CERN Web site.
Nearly all of these scientists work on one of the four major detectors.
ALICE - A Large Ion Collider Experiment
This nearly 50-foot tall detector is used to analyze heavy atomic collisions. The scale of it is truly overwhelming, according to Humanic.
"The magnet alone has about the same amount of iron in it as the Eiffel Tower," he said.