Deep under the border of Switzerland and France, a massive ring-shaped installation blasts particles into one another at incredible speeds. Scientists observe these collisions, allowing them to observe the impossibly small particles — which essentially make up the very fabric of reality — for an infinitesimal moment of time. This enormous structure is known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and has provided physicists with incredible insights into the physical makeup of our universe.
That said, it also seems like every headline regarding the LHC threatens to either overturn the current model of physics, or open a world-ending tear in inter-dimensional space-time. Given just how information (and misinformation, for that matter) is out there about the particle collider, we’ve put together this simple yet exhaustive guide outlining everything you might want to know about it.
What is the Large Hadron Collider?
The Large Hadron Collider was constructed between 1998 and 2008 and began its first operational run on November 20, 2009, following a year-long delay due to an incident where an electrical fault resulted in several tons of liquid helium coolant being vented into the tunnel. The massive project cost a staggering $9 billion to construct, making it the most expensive machine ever built.
Like the name suggests, the LHC smashes beams of tiny particles such as hadrons — i.e. small particles made of even smaller subatomic particles known as quarks — into each other at ultra-high speeds. These particle beams are launched with about 13 teraelectronvolts (TeV) of combined energy, resulting in unbelievably dense particles that are about 1,000,000 times hotter than the Sun’s core. This is one of the many reasons the structure is housed underground, and why it’s cooled to 1.9 degrees Kelvin, or nearly 1.9 degrees above absolute zero.
Those aren’t the only impressive numbers associated with the LHC, though.
Throughout the 17-mile loop, some 1,600 magnets curve and direct the beams around the massive tunnel and into one another. The magnets are made up of tiny strands of coiled copper-coated niobium-titanium, which — if unraveled — would reach to the Sun and back five times over, with enough left over to wrap around the moon and back a few times as well.
All that magnetic material helps accelerate the particle beams to super-high speeds just shy of the speed of light. When they collide at such speeds, the tiny particles explode into subatomic particles, crashing and bouncing off one another in a high-energy environment that’s similar to the conditions of the universe at the time of the Big Bang. Within these explosions, researchers search for new clues into how the universe works.
In order to collect and analyze the vast amounts of data produced by the LHC, a global network of 170 computing centers spread over 36 countries crunches tens of petabytes of data every year. The network grid is so large it currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest distributed computer grid on Earth.
The Higgs Boson and other discoveries made by the LHC
Currently, we use the Standard Model of Particle Physics to explain how particle physics works. The Standard Model, which was formulated over the course of the 20th century by various scientists, has thus far remained consistent in explaining the parts of the universe directly observable to us — which is only about 5 percent of the universe. This leaves the remaining 95 percent of the universe unaccounted for in SM, including dark matter and dark energy, and any potential forces or interactions they exert.
Even the parts we can observe have some yet-unanswered questions. The standard model doesn’t even account for gravity and is incompatible with the theory of relativity. Clearly, we have a lot left to learn.
That’s where the LHC comes in. Thus far, LHC experiments confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson, aka “The God Particle,” which was an important theoretical aspect of The Standard Model that never been observed until it was confirmed by a test at the LHC on July 4, 2012. The Higgs Boson is an elusive, high-mass particle which is the very thing that gives mass to all matter in the universe — basically, it’s what allows things to physically exist.
Other particles, such as the exotic hadrons X(3872), Z(4430), Zc(3900), and Y(4140), have also been observed in LHC tests, as well as a number of other potential elementary particles which have yet to be confirmed.
The discovery of the Higgs Boson was a major step forward for understanding the physical laws of the universe but it also gave rise to even more questions and problems. In fact, much of what the LHC has uncovered about particle physics leads to more questions than answers in general. So, researchers continue to use the LHC to blast particles together in hopes of finding some answers.
The safety of the LHC and particle collision
Of course, when dealing with such high amounts of energy and expensive, powerful equipment, the question becomes: is all this safe? The short answer is yes but that hasn’t stopped people from hypothesizing any number of doomsday scenarios.
Well-known scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Neil Degrasse Tyson have proposed possible catastrophic events that could occur as a result of the LHC’s use, including the formation of mini black holes, the obliteration of the Earth, and the production of destructive theoretical particles known as “strangelets.” Hawking has also warned the Higgs Boson is a dangerous and potentially destructive discovery, and should be left alone.
However, two American Physical Society-endorsed reviews commissioned by the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN) have cleared the LHC of any safety concerns. In fact, as pointed out within the reports, the types of particle collisions the LHC produces happen constantly throughout the universe and resemble the collisions between ultra-high-energy cosmic rays and the Earth, which occur at speeds far greater than what the LHC accomplishes.
Such concerns from major scientific figures has lead to a glut of conspiracy theories regarding the LHC. The more creative theories around the internet claim CERN is using the LHC to open portals to Hell, to transport us to alternate realities, and to communicate with malicious beings. These, however, only scratch the surface. The fact researchers openly discuss the possibility the LHC helps discover proof of multiple universes or other dimensions within our own only adds fuel to the conspiratorial fire.
A prominent aspect of many of these conspiracy theories is CERN’s connection to the Hindu Goddess of creation and destruction, Shiva, who serves as the mascot for the LHC and has a statue erected in the entrance to the LHC. Many claim this is a subtle admission there is something far more other-worldly happening at CERN. In reality, the statue’s presence is easily explained; it was a gift from the government of India in celebration of the LHC’s completion and CERN felt Shiva’s status as goddess of creation and destruction was an appropriate metaphor for the LHC’s function.
What’s next for the LHC and particle physics
So now that researchers have used the LHC to find the Higgs Boson, what’s next for the super structure? The discovery of the Higgs Boson is just the beginning. Researchers hope to find other types of bosons and other elementary particles and to use the LHC to begin testing the theory of supersymmetry, which posits that every particle of matter has another, larger counterpart somewhere else in the universe.
The LHC is also scheduled to receive an upgrade to high luminosity sometime after 2022, which will increase the spectrum within which results are visible. In simple terms, this means researchers will be able to observe tests better, as the tunnels will be better lit.
This is important for obvious reasons, but the main concern is the LHC may be running out of potential discoveries given its current luminosity. In the early life of a collider, the number of discoveries is vastly greater than later on, as the number of things which can be seen at a given luminosity is finite. The only way to increase the number of potential discoveries is to upgrade the facility’s luminosity or the strength of its instruments. The upgrade should allow for even more puzzling aspects of particle physics to be examined.
Scientists even hope to one day use the LHC to peek into the realms of dark matter and scour potential, hidden dimensions of the universe. It’s a long shot, sure, but then again, confirming the existence of the Higgs boson was once considered a pipe dream. No pun intended.