An Overview: What Does the Large Hadron Collider Do? And Why?

At a depth of one hundred meters, beneath the border between France and Switzerland, there is a circular machine that might reveal some mysteries of the universe to us all. Or, as some people believe, it could wipe us all out. Either way, it is the world’s largest machine and it will examine the universe’s smallest particles. It is known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Here is an overview of how it works.

What is the LHC Looking For?

In an attempt to improve our understanding of our universe, including how it works and its actual structure, scientists proposed a theory called the standard model. This theory tries to define and explain the fundamental particles that make up the universe. It takes elements from Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum theory. It also deals with three of the four basic forces of the universe: strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, and electromagnetic force. It does not address the effects of gravity, also known as the fourth fundamental force.

The standard model tries to make a variety of predictions about the universe, many seem to be true according to experiments that have already bee conducted. But there are other elements of the model that are not yet proven. One of those is a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson Particle.

The Higgs boson particle could answer some questions about mass. You might think why does matter have mass? Scientists have uncovered particles that have no mass, such as neutrinos. Why should one kind of particle have mass and another lack it? Scientists have expressed many thoughts to explain the existence of mass.

The most straightforward of these being the Higgs mechanism. This theory says that there may be a particle and a corresponding force mediating, that could explain why some particles require mass. The theoretical particle has never been recorded and could very well not exist. Some scientists wish the events created by the LHC will also uncover evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson particle. While some hope that the events will provide clues for new information to come to light that has yet to be considered.

LHC: Smashing Protons

The principle behind the LHC is fairly straightforward. First, you fire two beams of particles along two pathways, one going clockwise and the other going counterclockwise. You accelerate both beams to near the speed of light. Then, you shoot these two beams at each other and see what happens.

Equipment necessary for such a task is complex. The LHC is just one part of the overall CERN particle accelerator facility. Before any protons or ions enter the LHC, they have already gone through a range of steps.

Let us look at the life of a proton as it travels through the LHC procedure. To begin with, scientists must strip electrons from hydrogen atoms to produce protons. Next, the protons machines use devices called radio frequency cavities to accelerate the protons.

The cavities contain a radio-frequency electric field that propels the proton beams to higher speeds. Giant magnets produce the magnetic fields necessary to keep the proton beams on track. In car terms, think of the radio frequency cavities as an accelerator and the magnets as a steering wheel.

Once a beam of protons reaches the right energy level, the PS Booster injects it into another accelerator called the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS). The beams continue to pick up speed. By now, beams have divided into bunches. Each bunch contains 1.1 x 1011 protons, and there are 2,808 bunches per beam. The SPS injects beams into the LHC, with one beam traveling clockwise and the other going counterclockwise.

Inside the LHC, the beams continue to accelerate. This takes about 20 minutes. At top speed, the beams make 11,245 trips around the LHC every second. The two beams converge at one of the six detector sites positioned along the LHC. At that position, there will be around 600 million collisions per second.

When two protons collide, they break apart into even smaller particles. That includes subatomic particles called quarks and a mitigating force called gluon. Quarks are very unstable and will decay in a fraction of a second. The detectors collect information by tracking the path of subatomic particles. Then the detectors send information to a huge collection of powerful computer systems.

The LHC is an amazing piece of technology connected to a huge range of systems that intend to work towards a unified theory for the universe. We live in exciting times for science and technology like this could contribute to revolutions about how we understand the universe.