The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is being switched on today, marking one of the most important events in modern science.

It is difficult to predict an apparent use for what will be discovered at the LHC, but our understanding might lead to all sorts of amazing and unforeseen applications.

Professor Andy Parker

The LHC is a particle accelerator contained within a 27km long circular tunnel buried deep below the borders of Switzerland and France.

The design, construction, and implementation of this project has involved a massive collaboration of 111 nations and a budget estimated at around £2.6 billion.

Cambridge has played a major role in the project since 1989, when Professor Andy Parker, now head of the High Energy Physics Group at the Cavendish Laboratory, attended the first meeting to discuss the largest particle detector ever built, the cathedral-sized ATLAS.

Cambridge is also involved with the LHCb project using the accelerator. This experiment will look at the differences between matter and antimatter particles, to understand why the Universe contains so little antimatter today.

The purpose of this gargantuan effort is to recreate the conditions of the universe just after it was created in order to untangle some of the longest standing mysteries of physics, principally the origin of mass.

Physicists at CERN, the home of the LHC, will be smashing two beams of accelerated particles together in order to tear them apart and have a peek inside to document the minuscule components and the ways they come together to create all matter.

In particular, they are looking for the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that is thought to be responsible for the mass of objects.

The existence of extra dimensions and the particles that make up dark matter are also going to be investigated using the LHC.

If the particles are discovered, then it will be possible to study how they behave and perhaps learn to harness them for new technological applications.

Professor Parker said, 'Right now we are at the same stage as when electricity and magnetism were still Victorian parlour tricks. Once we obtained an understanding of those ideas, we were able to develop all the funky technology that we use today like radio, television, and mobile communications.

'It is difficult to predict an apparent use for what will be discovered at the LHC, but our understanding might lead to all sorts of amazing and unforeseen applications.'

The Cambridge team now includes around 40 people working on the LHC, including academics and students as well as the technical support staff who built the equipment now installed in ATLAS waiting for the first collisions.

Dr Martin White completed his PhD in the Cambridge group working on ATLAS. He still conducts his research at the Cavendish and also writes a blog called 'The Collider Insider' with updates and commentary on news about the LHC.

He says of the LHC, 'It seems that over the past five years that I've been working at CERN, we've been told that the start up would be happening the following year, so we're all still in disbelief.

There's always been a Cambridge posse at the LHC, which is great because it encourages communication across the different research groups in a way that doesn't usually happen when we're back in the UK.'

Professor Parker will be appearing on upcoming BBC programmes about particle physics and the LHC. Martin White's blog can be found at the link above right.

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