The Big Bang Machine

November 25, 2008 by · Comments Off 

By Josh Webb
jwebb@smu.edu

The universe is a mysterious place full of the unknown. What are the origins of earth? What is dark matter? All are questions that the Hadron Collider and SMU scientists are working to answer.

The massive machine took 10 years to design, 10 years to build and $10 billion to make. The 17-mile-long particle accelerator is located in Europe, where physicists from all over the world come to work on the project.

Science Specifics

The Hadron Collider is a complex project. The machine will be able to send protons in opposite directions at such a force that the protons will end up colliding. When the protons collide, they will produce new particles.

The new particles will then be recorded by detectors that are placed at the collision points. These detectors will enable physicists to look at the distinct behaviors of the new particles that are created.

With the new particles being created at such a high energy, physicists may be able to get a closer look at the structure and/or origins of the universe.

Collider Hits Home

SMU physics professor Fredrick Olness traveled to Geneva to work on the experiment. He was on the team that worked on the theoretical models for the machine. Olness developed abstract and data driven models to help other physicists predict results the collider might produce.

“The Hadron Collider could produce up to a billion results per second, yet we can only record 100 results per compact disc,” Olness said. “So, it’s up to us to decide which results are the most important.”

It can also produce energy greater than any other man-made machine on earth. The collider “can produce [a force] with seven times the energy and intensity of any man-made machine. We [will] have enough energy to make objects 1,000 times heavier than a proton,” Olness said.

This simply means that physicists will be able to look at particles that couldn’t be seen before because the collider would give the particles a heavier mass, which would make them visible.

‘Too Good and Not Complete’

A major hope of the project would be the discovery of dark matter and the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson, in theory, is a subatomic particle that is thought to be the source of the mass of all particles. Dark matter is believed to make up a huge part of the universe. However, this is only a theory. No one has been able to study dark matter directly.

SMU Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski said that “theorists have vivid imaginations and proposed a large number of possibilities: dark matter with properties different than the ones we are made from, [and the] higgs boson that is supposed to give different mass to different particles.”

The standard model of fundamental particles and interactions is a theory that accounts for all particles and their interactions through strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions of quarks, which are particles that make up protons and neutron in the atom nucleus.

“This model is too good and not complete. The model predicts all molecules are massless, but all molecules have mass because of gravity,” SMU Physics Professor Roberto Vega said. “If only the Higgs [boson] is discovered, it will make the standard model the law of nature until we are able to test the theory at a higher energy. We would have to build a collider 100,000 times bigger.”

If the standard model is proven to be the law of nature, it will simply mean that the standard model will be the dominant model used to find other particles.

On the positive side, physicists will be able to learn more about the particles they have already discovered. However, this model will not be able to effectively discover new particles. Physicists would only have one model to go by which would make the discovery of new particles difficult. This is why the model is considered “too good and not complete.”

A Different Theory

Another hypothesis called the string theory seeks to unify quantum theory (strong force, weak forces and electromagnetic forces) and gravity.

If this were to occur, the theory of supersymmetry would be created. Supersymmetry simply states that for every particle that is a carrier of force (bosons), there is a corresponding particle of matter (fermions).

If “supersymmetry relates fermions and bosons, new particles can be created,” Vega said.

Mixed Emotions Surround Super Machine

The Hadron Collider has received a lot of high praise but not by everyone. Speculation did rise about the machine having the capacity of creating a black hole that would engulf the earth and end mankind as we know it.

“There will always be speculation about something new,” Olness said. “The atmosphere is bombarded by rays stronger than [what] the Hadron Collider can make.”

Olness said the planet has been able to withstand forces much stronger than what people can make, which would make the possibility of creating a black hole very small.

“There was similar concern when the A-bomb first appeared,” Olness said. “It was believed that when the bomb was set off that it would ignite the atmosphere and that never happened.”

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking found that black holes leak energy, which in turn causes them to evaporate at a rapid rate. The chance of a black hole being created and swallowing the earth is not very high.

Expecting the Unexpected

The Hadron Collider has limitless possibilities. Once the collider starts collecting data, there’s no telling what results might appear. The Higgs boson and/or supersymmetry are what physicists expect to find, but others want the unexpected to occur.

“The things we don’t expect are more interesting than the things we expect,” Olness said.

As for now, the collider has been shut down due to an electrical glitch that caused a helium leak inside of the machine. It should resume operation in Spring 2009.