Deep beneath the Swiss-French border near Geneva, thousands of physicists are building the world's largest and most expensive science experiment — a particle collider that they hope will bring them one step closer toward unlocking some of the universe’s oldest secrets.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a $4 billion instrument that scientists at the European Center of Nuclear Research, or CERN, hope to use to re-create the big bang by crashing protons together at high speed. The big bang theory is just one of the ideas believed by some, which created what we know as the universe.
A 27-kilometer circular tunnel several hundred feet beneath Switzerland and France, the LHC will operate at -271 degrees Celsius, and collisions will occur 800 million times a second.
When they switch on the LHC in November, the magnet and several others will help to drive two streams of protons in opposite directions around the ring at close to the speed of light. Upon collision, the beams are expected to create many new particles and possibly a reconstruction of the universe in its very first moments. If the experiment is successful, all that work could explain the origins of mass.
Particle physicists believe the Big Bang was a huge explosion of energy that took place roughly 13 billion years ago, generating the matter that makes up humans, animals, plants, stars, galaxies — in short, the universe as we know it. But they still have niggling questions, including the deceptively simple riddle of why matter actually has mass. “Cosmologists can’t understand or measure the size of the universe,” says Grey. “It’s the missing mass problem.”
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