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The Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

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The Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

Mar-30-2010 at 09:22 PM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

The Large Hadron Collider
Our understanding of the Universe is about to change...

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a gigantic scientific instrument near Geneva, where it spans the border between Switzerland and France about 100 m underground. It is a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles – the fundamental building blocks of all things. It will revolutionise our understanding, from the minuscule world deep within atoms to the vastness of the Universe.

Two beams of subatomic particles called 'hadrons' – either protons or lead ions – will travel in opposite directions inside the circular accelerator, gaining energy with every lap. Physicists will use the LHC to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang, by colliding the two beams head-on at very high energy. Teams of physicists from around the world will analyse the particles created in the collisions using special detectors in a number of experiments dedicated to the LHC.

There are many theories as to what will result from these collisions, but what's for sure is that a brave new world of physics will emerge from the new accelerator, as knowledge in particle physics goes on to describe the workings of the Universe. For decades, the Standard Model of particle physics has served physicists well as a means of understanding the fundamental laws of Nature, but it does not tell the whole story. Only experimental data using the higher energies reached by the LHC can push knowledge forward, challenging those who seek confirmation of established knowledge, and those who dare to dream beyond the paradigm.

Why the LHC
A few unanswered questions...
The LHC was built to help scientists to answer key unresolved questions in particle physics. The unprecedented energy it achieves may even reveal some unexpected results that no one has ever thought of!

For the past few decades, physicists have been able to describe with increasing detail the fundamental particles that make up the Universe and the interactions between them. This understanding is encapsulated in the Standard Model of particle physics, but it contains gaps and cannot tell us the whole story. To fill in the missing knowledge requires experimental data, and the next big step to achieving this is with LHC.

Newton's unfinished business...
What is mass?

What is the origin of mass? Why do tiny particles weigh the amount they do? Why do some particles have no mass at all? At present, there are no established answers to these questions. The most likely explanation may be found in the Higgs boson, a key undiscovered particle that is essential for the Standard Model to work. First hypothesised in 1964, it has yet to be observed.

The ATLAS and CMS experiments will be actively searching for signs of this elusive particle.

An invisible problem...
What is 96% of the universe made of?

Everything we see in the Universe, from an ant to a galaxy, is made up of ordinary particles. These are collectively referred to as matter, forming 4% of the Universe. Dark matter and dark energy are believed to make up the remaining proportion, but they are incredibly difficult to detect and study, other than through the gravitational forces they exert. Investigating the nature of dark matter and dark energy is one of the biggest challenges today in the fields of particle physics and cosmology.

The ATLAS and CMS experiments will look for supersymmetric particles to test a likely hypothesis for the make-up of dark matter.

Nature's favouritism...
Why is there no more antimatter?

We live in a world of matter – everything in the Universe, including ourselves, is made of matter. Antimatter is like a twin version of matter, but with opposite electric charge. At the birth of the Universe, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been produced in the Big Bang. But when matter and antimatter particles meet, they annihilate each other, transforming into energy. Somehow, a tiny fraction of matter must have survived to form the Universe we live in today, with hardly any antimatter left. Why does Nature appear to have this bias for matter over antimatter?

The LHCb experiment will be looking for differences between matter and antimatter to help answer this question. Previous experiments have already observed a tiny behavioural difference, but what has been seen so far is not nearly enough to account for the apparent matter–antimatter imbalance in the Universe.

Secrets of the Big Bang
What was matter like within the first second of the Universe’s life?

Matter, from which everything in the Universe is made, is believed to have originated from a dense and hot cocktail of fundamental particles. Today, the ordinary matter of the Universe is made of atoms, which contain a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons, which in turn are made of quarks bound together by other particles called gluons. The bond is very strong, but in the very early Universe conditions would have been too hot and energetic for the gluons to hold the quarks together. Instead, it seems likely that during the first microseconds after the Big Bang the Universe would have contained a very hot and dense mixture of quarks and gluons called quark–gluon plasma.

The ALICE experiment will use the LHC to recreate conditions similar to those just after the Big Bang, in particular to analyse the properties of the quark-gluon plasma.

Hidden worlds…
Do extra dimensions of space really exist?

Einstein showed that the three dimensions of space are related to time. Subsequent theories propose that further hidden dimensions of space may exist; for example, string theory implies that there are additional spatial dimensions yet to be observed. These may become detectable at very high energies, so data from all the detectors will be carefully analysed to look for signs of extra dimensions.

How the LHC works

The LHC, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, is the latest addition to CERN’s accelerator complex. It mainly consists of a 27 km ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way.

Inside the accelerator, two beams of particles travel at close to the speed of light with very high energies before colliding with one another. The beams travel in opposite directions in separate beam pipes – two tubes kept at ultrahigh vacuum. They are guided around the accelerator ring by a strong magnetic field, achieved using superconducting electromagnets. These are built from coils of special electric cable that operates in a superconducting state, efficiently conducting electricity without resistance or loss of energy. This requires chilling the magnets to about ‑271°C – a temperature colder than outer space! For this reason, much of the accelerator is connected to a distribution system of liquid helium, which cools the magnets, as well as to other supply services.

Thousands of magnets of different varieties and sizes are used to direct the beams around the accelerator. These include 1232 dipole magnets of 15 m length which are used to bend the beams, and 392 quadrupole magnets, each 5–7 m long, to focus the beams. Just prior to collision, another type of magnet is used to 'squeeze' the particles closer together to increase the chances of collisions. The particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing needles from two positions 10 km apart with such precision that they meet halfway!

All the controls for the accelerator, its services and technical infrastructure are housed under one roof at the CERN Control Centre. From here, the beams inside the LHC will be made to collide at four locations around the accelerator ring, corresponding to the positions of the particle detectors.

The LHC experiments

The six experiments at the LHC are all run by international collaborations, bringing together scientists from institutes all over the world. Each experiment is distinct, characterised by its unique particle detector.

The two large experiments, ATLAS and CMS, are based on general-purpose detectors to analyse the myriad of particles produced by the collisions in the accelerator. They are designed to investigate the largest range of physics possible. Having two independently designed detectors is vital for cross-confirmation of any new discoveries made.

Two medium-size experiments, ALICE and LHCb, have specialised detectors for analysing the LHC collisions in relation to specific phenomena.

Two experiments, TOTEM and LHCf, are much smaller in size. They are designed to focus on ‘forward particles’ (protons or heavy ions). These are particles that just brush past each other as the beams collide, rather than meeting head-on

The ATLAS, CMS, ALICE and LHCb detectors are installed in four huge underground caverns located around the ring of the LHC. The detectors used by the TOTEM experiment are positioned near the CMS detector, whereas those used by LHCf are near the ATLAS detector.

Worldwide LHC Computing Grid

The Large Hadron Collider will produce roughly 15 petabytes (15 million gigabytes) of data annually – enough to fill more than 1.7 million dual-layer DVDs a year!

Thousands of scientists around the world want to access and analyse this data, so CERN is collaborating with institutions in 34 different countries to operate a distributed computing and data storage infrastructure: the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG).

Data from the LHC experiments is distributed around the globe, with a primary backup recorded on tape at CERN. After initial processing, this data is distributed to eleven large computer centres – in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, Spain, Taipei, the UK, and two sites in the USA – with sufficient storage capacity for a large fraction of the data, and with round-the-clock support for the computing grid.

These so-called “Tier-1” centres make the data available to over 160 “Tier-2” centres for specific analysis tasks. Individual scientists can then access the LHC data from their home country, using local computer clusters or even individual PCs.

The WLCG collaborates closely with the other CERN grid projects:

  • The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid has been the driving force behind the European multi-science grid Enabling Grids for E-SciencE (EGEE), which continues to grow in size and diversity of usage. EGEE currently involves more than 240 institutions in 45 countries, supporting science in more than 20 disciplines, including bioinformatics, medical imaging, education, climate change, energy, agriculture and more.
  • CERN openlab: The WLCG project also works with industry, in particular through the CERN openlab, where leading IT companies are testing and validating cutting-edge grid technologies using the WLCG environment.

    Related links
    Worldwide LHC Computing Grid

Facts and figures
The largest machine in the world...

The precise circumference of the LHC accelerator is 26 659 m, with a total of 9300 magnets inside. Not only is the LHC the world’s largest particle accelerator, just one-eighth of its cryogenic distribution system would qualify as the world’s largest fridge. All the magnets will be pre‑cooled to -193.2°C (80 K) using 10 080 tonnes of liquid nitrogen, before they are filled with nearly 60 tonnes of liquid helium to bring them down to -271.3°C (1.9 K).
The fastest racetrack on the planet...

At full power, trillions of protons will race around the LHC accelerator ring 11 245 times a second, travelling at 99.99% the speed of light. Two beams of protons will each travel at a maximum energy of 7 TeV (tera-electronvolt), corresponding to head-to-head collisions of 14 TeV. Altogether some 600 million collisions will take place every second.

The emptiest space in the Solar System...

To avoid colliding with gas molecules inside the accelerator, the beams of particles travel in an ultra-high vacuum – a cavity as empty as interplanetary space. The internal pressure of the LHC is 10-13 atm, ten times less than the pressure on the Moon!

The hottest spots in the galaxy, but even colder than outer space...
The LHC is a machine of extreme hot and cold. When two beams of protons collide, they will generate temperatures more than 100 000 times hotter than the heart of the Sun, concentrated within a minuscule space. By contrast, the 'cryogenic distribution system', which circulates superfluid helium around the accelerator ring, keeps the LHC at a super cool temperature of -271.3°C (1.9 K) – even colder than outer space!

The biggest and most sophisticated detectors ever built...

To sample and record the results of up to 600 million proton collisions per second, physicists and engineers have built gargantuan devices that measure particles with micron precision. The LHC's detectors have sophisticated electronic trigger systems that precisely measure the passage time of a particle to accuracies in the region of a few billionths of a second. The trigger system also registers the location of the particles to millionths of a metre.

This incredibly quick and precise response is essential for ensuring that the particle recorded in successive layers of a detector is one and the same.

The most powerful supercomputer system in the world...

The data recorded by each of the big experiments at the LHC will fill around 100 000 dual layer DVDs every year. To allow the thousands of scientists scattered around the globe to collaborate on the analysis over the next 15 years (the estimated lifetime of the LHC), tens of thousands of computers located around the world are being harnessed in a distributed computing network called the Grid.

The ultimate guide to the LHC
More information, facts and figures on the LHC can be found in CERN FAQ – LHC the guide. (25MB PDF FILE)

CERN in a nutshell

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature.

The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

Founded in 1954, the CERN Laboratory sits astride the Franco–Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 20 Member States.


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