Particle Accelerators. They're big. They're sexy. And they may change our view of the universe and our place in it. A particle accelerator is device used to accelerate sub-atomic particles (like a proton) to very high speeds. Particle accelerators have also been known as cyclotrons and atom smashers. Physicists design them in hopes of inquiring into the dynamics and structure of matter, space, and time. There are scores of particle accelerators and accelerator laboratories in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
These awe-inspiring and magnificent machines come in all different shapes and sizes. There are ring and linear accelerators and they perform various functions. Most people are excited about the colliders, like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.
How an accelerator Works
The principle behind the LHC is pretty simple. 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 direct both beams toward each other and watch what happens.
According to Dr. Brian Cox, “In that moment of collision — less than a billionth of a second — you get extreme conditions, like the very early universe. You get a massive amount of energy, and loads of things flying out — like the debris of the collision. It can also form new particles that have never been seen before. And that’s what we’re really after.”
Just What the Heck are They Looking For
Today, physicists are looking for evidence to support their proposed model of the universe such as other dimensions we can't perceive. This could help support theories such as string theory and M-theory which need additional dimensions in order to make sense. Along with the Higgs Boson, they’re also looking for evidence of dark matter, dark energy, anti-matter, and whatever other surprises may appear.
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Scientists from CERN and around the globe will try to compute, analyze, and interpret massive amounts of data that could take many, many months. Will the LHC help us in advance our knowledge about our universe? It is almost certain it will raise more questions than it answers. Yet if past experiments at labs around the world are any indication, we can assume the answer is yes. Of course, there are those who claim these giant academic egghead toys are a complete and total waste of time and resources. Time will tell. Stay tuned!
Check out this computer animated YouTube Video on just how the Large Hadron Collider works!
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