After year of trouble, Big Bang machine breaks world record

Large Hadron Collider up and running after repairs completed, safety increased

After a year of technical problems, bad publicity and staggered momentum, the Large Hadron Collider has returned to work with a vengeance.

The world's largest atom smasher, created and operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), early today set a record and became the world's most powerful matter-rending machine. What does that mean? Well, the particle collider, which sits astride the Swiss/French border, accelerated its twin beams of protons to an energy of 1.18 teraelectronvolts (TeV), the highest ever achieved by a particle collider.

Today's action broke the previous world record of 0.98 TeVs, set by the U.S. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory's Tevatron collider. The Tevatron collider, located in Batavia, Ill., had held the record since 2001.

"We are still coming to terms with just how smoothly the [Large Hadron Collider] commissioning is going," said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer, in a statement. "It is fantastic. However, we are continuing to take it step by step, and there is still a lot to do before we start physics in 2010. I'm keeping my champagne on ice until then."

The collider broke the acceleration record just 10 days after coming back online. It had been offline since going down for repairs shortly after its first test runs in the fall of 2008.

The Large Hadron Collider, which had been under construction since the late 1980s, shot its first beam of protons around a 17-mile, vacuum-sealed loop in September of 2008. The test run of what is the largest, most powerful particle accelerator in the world, was a forebear to the time when scientists will accelerate two particle beams toward each other at 99.9% of the speed of light.

Smashing the beams together will create showers of new particles that should re-create conditions in the universe just moments after its conception. By using this machine and simulating the moments after the Big Bang, scientists from around the world are hoping to find answers to a question that has haunted mankind for centuries: How was the universe created ?

However, shortly after the collider's first test run last year, scientists running the collider disclosed that a faulty electrical connection had knocked the Hadron machine offline for what was initially seen as six months. But a few months later, CERN officials told Computerworld that the problems were going to be more extensive and more expensive to fix than planned. The price tag to get the Hadron collider working again was at $21 million.

Despite scientists' efforts and the amount of money spent, Hadron was still not operating by the spring of 2009. It's re-start date was moved to November to give engineers time to make more repairs and add extra safety features.

Since it was switched back on less than two weeks ago, the machine's operators have shot proton beams around the 17-mile loop in alternating directions. And on Nov. 23, scientists shot two beams at each other, recording their first collision data.

Scientists said today that they hope to increase the intensity of the collisions before the end of this month.

The first real physics experiments are set to be conducted during the first quarter of 2010.

The collider, which has been called "one of the great engineering milestones of mankind," was built to explore the Big Bang theory. The Big Bang theory holds that more than 13 billion years ago, an amazingly dense object the size of a coin expanded into the universe that we know now.

Controversy has swirled around the collider and the experiments being done there. Critics have said that smashing particle beams together in the collider could cause a cataclysmic reaction that could vaporize the Earth or suck it into a black hole that would shoot it out into an alternate universe.

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld (US)
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