Shortly before 8.30am on Wednesday, scientists at Cern turned on the Large Hadron Collider for the first time. Within one hour, a particle beam had been successfully circulated through the machine.
The world's most powerful particle accelerator to date, the system is designed to recreate the conditions that existed a millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, or the birth of the universe. By smashing particles together at unprecedented — in man-made terms — energies, the scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) hope to answer questions such as why some subatomic particles are heavier than others, and how particles were formed in the first place.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is the world's largest machine, is housed in a 27km-long circular tunnel located 100m under the Alps, straddling the Swiss-French border. Wednesday saw the first attempt to circulate a particle beam around the entire ring, but no attempt was be made to create collisions on this date. Rather, the work towards that goal with the LHC and its detectors will now continue.
One specific particle that the scientists want to detect is the 'Higgs boson'. The confirmation of the existence of this as-yet-unobserved particle would validate much of what is currently believed to be true about physics.
The LHC is the world's largest cryogenic installation. In preparation for Wednesday's initiation, 37,000 tonnes of equipment had to be cooled down by 300°C to 1.9° above absolute zero (-271°C). The machine also uses the world's most advanced superconducting magnet technologies. LHC's conception and construction involved 10,000 people from 500 institutes in 50 countries.
Elements of the LHC system were successfully tested in August to ensure exact synchronisation.
Cern's first particle accelerator, the proton Synchro-Cyclotron, was built in 1957. The LHC, by contrast, will be seven times more powerful than any existing particle accelerator today. Within the next few years, Cern hopes to be colliding particles at 30 times the intensity of older particle accelerators.
The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has invested more than half a billion pounds in the project. This includes the UK's subscription to Cern and the funding that has gone into the UK institutes that were involved in the construction of the LHC's detectors. It also includes the GridPP, the UK's contribution to the grid computing network established to handle the vast amounts of data that will be generated by the project. Through GridPP, the UK is providing 15 percent of the computing power in that network.
"We are trying to find out what everything is made of; what we are made of; the smallest pieces inside us; every atom," Peter Watkins, professor of the University of Birmingham's School of Physics and Astronomy, said in a statement.
"We're also trying to understand how the universe started," Watkins continued. "We're trying to understand what happened shortly after the Big Bang, and we need to look at these tiny particles to understand that better. However, to achieve this, when we study things at the Large Hadron Collider, we need equipment which challenges technology and industry to the limit. And we push electronics and computers right to the leading edge of the subject."