While humans may not actually reconstruct the universe as it is, earlier this week the New York Times and International Herald Tribune announced the intentions of a global group of physicists to re-create the environment of the early universe so they can better understand the Big Bang. After a hundred years of theory, discussion, and lab tests, the time has come to test results at a higher level. The machine the physicists plan to build is a super-sized linear collider that is ten times the size of the largest one that currently exists. So, where will it be built, and what do we hope this new $6.7 billion machine will tell us?
Scientists hope the machine will provide a more accurate peak into the origins of the universe, as well as a better comprehension of poorly understood particles and forces, such as the Higgs boson fundamental particle (the only Standard Model particle yet to be observed) and the elusive and mysterious dark matter they suspect composes approximately 95% of our universe. Some suspect the machine will stretch our current models, and potentially blow holes in them. Others think the international linear collider will direct us toward the long-sought unified theory, or Theory of Everything (TOE), that Einstein spent the last decades of his life striving to knit together. The TOE, if it’s even possible, should combine electromagnetism, gravity, strong and weak energy forces, particle physics, and quantum mechanics under an umbrella of consistent laws and equations.
Three locations are in the running to house the new particle collider: Batavia, Illinois; Geneva, Switzerland; and the mountains of Japan. China and Japan are vying for it to be located in Asia, as they’re interested in relocating the center of physics research from Europe and the Americas in the East. Batavia is where Fermilab is located, the high-tech U.S. Department of Energy lab that presently has a particle accelerator called the Tevatron. Geneva has long been a center of physics research with its famous CERN lab that roughly 50% of the physicists in the world use to carry out experiments, and Japan houses two accelerators and KEK, a high-profile particle research organization. The proposed international linear collider will be 31 kilometers long (20 miles), and will later be expanded to 50 kilometers (31 miles). Right now the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California hosts the longest subatomic accelerator in the world, measuring 3.2 kilometers (2 miles).
As a bonus to the research, generating fireballs from colliding electrons and positrons at 500 billion eVs (electronvolts) just sounds like plain fun. An electronvolt is one volt times the charge of an electron (a constant). According to the NYT, the new particle collider should “produce fireballs of energy recreating conditions when the universe was only a trillionth of a second old.” In other words, they’ll be able to observe something similar to the origin of the universe to see if their conjectures about the Big Bang are on track.
Consider this quote: “The very first two atoms which met, approaching each other from points not diametrically opposite, would, in rushing partially past each other, form a nucleus for the rotary movement described. How this would increase in velocity, is readily seen. The two atoms are joined by others; — an aggregation is formed. The mass continues to rotate while condensing.” Sounds like something penned by an early physicist or astronomer, but it was actually part of a larger 1848 essay called “Eureka” by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The idea that the universe started small and became gradually larger was around even before Poe, but it wasn’t until nearly 100 years after Poe wrote “Eureka” that a Catholic priest from Belgium named Georges Lemaître published a widely-read paper in 1931 that later developed into the Big Bang Theory. Alexander Alexandrovich Friedman and Albert Einstein also worked on similar ideas in the early part of the 20th century.
And now here we are, just around the cusp of the 21st century and on the verge of testing this longstanding idea armed with the most powerful particle accelerator ever imagined. The mysteries of the universe won’t unveil themselves overnight, but perhaps this will take us ones step closer.
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