November 24, 2009 — Scientists working this week at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva circulated beams of protons around the facility's 17-mile magnetic track, and for the first time collided protons, marking the inception of some of the most ambitious science experiments ever.
"We are tremendously excited that after 15 years of preparation, physics at the LHC is beginning," said University of Virginia physics professor Brad Cox, a principal investigator in U.Va.'s High Energy Physics Group and a longtime member and current United States manager of one of the key experiment groups (the Compact Muon Solenoid Detector experiment). "The first-ever collisions of beams marks the true beginning of an adventure into an unknown realm of physics."
The collider first began basic operation on Sept. 10, 2008, but faulty electrical connections forced a 14-month shutdown for repairs. Now, the machine is up and running again, and scientists are trying to make up for lost time.
Experiments at the facility, which will go on for decades, will bring new understanding of the basic structure of matter, insight to how the universe began and evolved, and possibly will prove – or disprove – the existence of the long-sought Higgs particle, the theoretical essence that gives mass to matter.
Once in full operation, the collider will send opposing beams of protons around the accelerator at nearly the speed of light, causing extreme high-energy collisions that will shatter those protons, producing new particles.
"We will explore the interactions of nature in an energy regime far above what has been possible in the past," Cox said. "We hope this will allow observation of the famous Higgs particle and explain the origin of mass as well as open an entirely new world with the detection of supersymmetric particles, which may be the dark matter of the universe."
With ongoing experiments, scientists will, in effect, replicate the conditions of the infant universe, the time before particles formed into atoms and molecules, and before elements coalesced to make the stars and planets.
The basic structure of matter evolved from the first seconds after the Big Bang, the explosion of energy that is believed to have created the universe. A better understanding of the basic makings of everything could provide insight into how the universe took shape.
Using a huge international computer grid, U.Va. physicists and their colleagues at dozens of institutions worldwide will gain access to massive amounts of data from what will be the highest-energy interactions ever produced by humans.
Development of the Large Hadron Collider and the design of the experiments is an international effort involving 19 European nations, 42 U.S. universities and institutes, and research groups in Japan, China, Brazil and other non-European nations.
Cox, along with U.Va. physicists Michael Arenton, Sarah Boutle, Sergio Conetti, Robert Hirosky, Alexander Ledovskoy and Christopher Neu, helped develop and test components for the $800 million electromagnetic particle detectors on the collider. U.Va. colleagues in computer science, electrical engineering, the Division of Information Technology and Communications and the radiology department also have contributed time and expertise.
Cox said that, in addition to new realms of physics, findings from collider experiments should lead to new technologies, such as superconductivity links for power grids, advanced forms of computer software and, as-yet-"unimagined benefits for society."