Record-breaking particle collisions mark new era in science

Screens show particle collisions in the control room of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva in Switzerland
Screens show particle collisions in the control room of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva in Switzerland Reuters

The world’s most powerful particle accelerator successfully made its first high-energy proton collisions on Tuesday, 18 months after technical problems forced the machine to shut down. The European Centre for Nuclear Research, Cern, said it had taken three attempts but the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) eventually managed to smash protons into each other at record energy levels.


Collisions took place at seven teraelectronvolts, close to the speed of light. The energy levels are three times higher than any previously achieved.

Q&A: Dave Charlton, European Centre for Nuclear Research

After two unsuccessful attempts, cheers broke out in control rooms all along the length of the 27-kilometre accelerator as the first collisions took place at 1.06pm Swiss time.

Cern scientist Paola Catapano hailed the achievement as “the beginning of a new era”.

Tuesday’s collisions mark the beginning of the “First Physics” stage of Cern’s research, which will see scientists replicate the process billions of times over 18 to 24 months.

Researchers will comb the data obtained for evidence of the theorised Higgs boson, or so-called “God particle”, which is thought to explain why matter has mass.

Other questions will concern "dark matter" and "dark energy", since visible matter only constitutes four per cent of the universe and scientists want to know more about the particles that make up the other 96 per cent.

At this stage the LHC is still running on only partial power. It is designed to run collisions at twice the current energy: 14 teraelectronvolts, equivalent to 99.99 per cent of the speed of light. Cern hopes to run the LHC at full power after 2011.

The LHC was forced to shut down due to a helium leak days after its launch in 2008, but was restarted last November after repairs.

How does it work?
  • The Large Hadron Collider consists of a 27-kilometre ring-tunnel buried about 100 metres underground on the French-Swiss border, near Geneva.
  • The corridor contains a series of 9,300 magnets which are cooled to -291.3°C using liquid nitrogen and liquid helium.
  • Two beams of protons travel in a vacuum in opposite directions around the ring-tunnel until they collide at close to the speed of light.
  • The colliding proton beams briefly generate temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the sun, in a recreation of the conditions immediately preceding the Big Bang, the moment at which the universe was created.
  • This will provide voluminous data on the behaviour of protons that will fill 100,000 DVDs every year, to be studied by scientists from around the world.

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