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In search of the Big Bang.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Among physicists eager to explore new territory, their ship sails today.

Early this morning two beams of protons began racing in opposite directions around a 17-mile track at speeds just a fraction below that of light. Later, scientists will cross the beams and hurl the subatomic particles into each other, triggering swarms of micro collisions that for an infinitesimal moment will resemble the first instants of the Big Bang.

Those brief flashes of light are expected to illuminate a new world, one that scientists hope will reveal the fundamental landscape of nature. Strange new particles, the composition of dark matter and dark energy, and hidden dimensions are just some of the revelations that could come from the gargantuan new machine, known as the Large Hadron Collider.

How the collider works and what it could reveal about the universe will be the topic of a free public lecture Friday at the University of Oregon. The three speakers, all UO professors, are on the international team that developed and will operate the $8 billion machine, built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, 300 feet below the Swiss-French border near Geneva.

The talk begins at 7 p.m. in Room 150, Columbia Hall, on the UO campus.

"This is an unprecedented moment in the history of mankind," said Professor Jim Brau, head of the UO's Institute for High Energy Physics and one of the Friday night speakers.

Brau said that when the collider is up to full speed - something that won't happen until next year - a new age of exploration will begin. It will be to physics what finding a whole new continent would be to a geographer.

In the collider, protons will be slammed into each other with seven times more energy than anything humankind has created before, 14 trillion electron volts. With any luck, that will be enough force to split apart bits of matter and energy that first fused together just microseconds after the Big Bang, the explosion that is theorized to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago that gave rise to everything we see and everything that science believes exists in the universe.

Four cavernous detectors will snare the bits blasted out at an expected rate of 600 million collisions per second. A new generation of supercomputers will sift through the resulting data - enough to fill a five gigabyte DVD every five seconds - in search of the relatively few collisions that will produce useful science.

Brau said the vast majority of proton collisions will be "boring," the sort of thing scientists have been seeing for decades in smaller accelerators. It could takes months of data or more before scientists strike gold.

"These things are very rare," he said. "Finding them is like looking for a golden needle in a very large haystack, and to do it you have to make lots and lots of haystacks."

The Large Hadron Collider itself is a study in contrasts and superlatives. Perhaps the most expensive machine ever built, it aims to produce energies close to what existed in the Big Bang by accelerating protons with magnets cooled to less than the temperature of deep space.

At full power, the proton beams will circle the 17-mile ring 11,200 times a second in a vacuum like that between the planets. At the four collision points, the beams will generate an amount of energy equal to 175 pounds of TNT in a space just 16 microns across.

Exactly what those collisions will produce is to some extent anybody's guess. A few on the fringe have suggested the collisions could spin out micro black holes that, they say, could destroy the Earth.

Brau and just about everybody else in the physics community dismisses such notions. Many safeguards and backstops have been built into the machine, and the idea of Earth-swallowing phenomena just isn't supported by either theory or mathematics, he said.

"We know for all kinds of reasons it's not a risk at all," Brau said.

But Brau does hope the collider spits out a mini black hole or two. The black hole would evaporate almost immediately while leaving traces that scientists could detect and study, he said.

Brau said that's just one of the strange paths down which the collider could lead us.

"What we have to be prepared to do is find hints that are unexpected and follow them," he said. "If there's any lesson to be learned from the history of science, it's to expect the unexpected."

But the one thing at the top of everyone's "to-discover" list is something called the Higgs boson. It's the particle that scientists will be holding their breath for once the collider is up and running at full speed.

Discovering it would explain how the normal matter we all interact with every day - the chair you're sitting on, the car you drive - gets its mass. Its discovery also would be one more stitch tying down the Standard Model, the theory-in-progress that currently explains how the 12 fundamental particles of matter and all but one of the four fundamental forces are tied together.

The Higgs boson is predicted by the Standard Model, but so far no one's been able to ram subatomic particles together with enough energy to pry one loose. There's widespread belief that the Large Hadron Collider will.

If and when it does, the sound of popping champagne corks will be heard in physics offices around the world.

Scientists also will be looking for evidence of dark matter and dark energy, the mysterious components that are believed to make up 96 percent of the universe.

It's just the remaining 4 percent that makes up us, the world we live on, and all the stars and planets and gas and other substances that are more or less visible to the naked eye.

What else? Well, the collider could help explain why there isn't more antimatter in the universe, whether extra dimensions exist and whether the known particles each have an unseen shadow partner, known as a supersymmetrical particle. Those discoveries, in turn, could help explain how the universe came to be the way it is.

Scientists believe that such knowledge is priceless and more than justifies the high cost of the research. But discovery carries practical benefits, too.

When scientists build a new or more powerful machine to expand the boundaries of knowledge, they often generate spin-offs that turn into new products. For example, scientists working at the CERN particle accelerator that preceded the Large Hadron Collider needed a way to share all the data being collected with hundreds of colleagues, so they worked out a new way to send and display information over computers.

Today that invention is known as the World Wide Web.
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Title Annotation:City/Region; University of Oregon scientists join in monumental physics experiments that begin today
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 10, 2008
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