Happy 10th Anniversary, LHC!

christinehao's picture

Ten years ago, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) circulated protons from the nucleus of hydrogen atoms around its accelerators for the first time. 

This was obviously an exciting milestone for physicists but why is it important for the rest of us?  Let’s take a look at what the LHC is and its contributions so far.

What Is The LHC?

The LHC is the world’s largest particle accelerator, which is a machine designed to accelerate particles and smash them together at high speed. It was built by CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in collaboration with other countries and universities to support research in the field of particle physics.  

The LHC is a 27 km or 16.7 mile-long ring of pipes, superconducting magnets and a cooling system of liquid helium.  Its size is approximately the area of Manhattan! There are two separate metal pipes in the ring that house particle beams traveling in opposite directions. The superconducting magnets are used to accelerate the particles almost to the speed of light before they are made to collide. In order to do so, the magnets have to be kept extremely cold by liquid helium at -273.1 C, or -456.3 F.  This is colder than outer space.

There are four locations in the accelerator ring where the particle beams collide. Particle detectors at these locations gather information, such as speed, mass and other types of short-lived particles that are generated. Physicists study these collision results to help us understand the basic building blocks of our universe.

Higgs Boson: The Mystery Particle

We’re all familiar with the periodic table of elements such as hydrogen and calcium, which was first published in 1869.  Over the next 100 years, scientists discovered smaller and smaller subatomic particles.

In the 1970’s, physicists formulated the Standard Model, a theory of how the particles that make up everything in our universe are held together by known forces. Specifically, the Standard Model is divided into fermions, the matter particles (they make up all matter in the world), and bosons, the force-carrier particles. Since then, the Standard Model has successfully predicted the results of most experiments in particle physics.

In 1964, British physicist Peter Higgs published a paper on why particles have mass. He predicted the existence of a field made up of Higgs bosons, where particles gain mass as they move through the field. Read this earlier article on Youngzine for more details. One of the goals of LHC was to find the Higgs boson, and indeed on July 2012, CERN announced they had finally found it during their LHC experiments.  The discovery earned the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics for Francois Englert and Peter Higgs.

What’s Next For The LHC?

There are still areas of physics that the Standard Model cannot explain.  For example, studies of galaxies show there is matter out there, commonly referred to as dark matter since we cannot see it, that we don’t know much about.  Physicists hope that the LHC can produce the mystery particles that may make up dark matter in order to study it.

A multi-year upgrade of the LHC just started this past June to enable it to be more efficient. When the upgrade is completed, it will be capable of performing seven billion particle collisions per second! This allows for ten times more data to be collected than today and will help the LHC continue its groundbreaking discoveries.

Sources: CERN, LiveScience, Cosmos Magazine, theconversation.com