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What if it were possible to observe the fundamental building blocks of matter, the foundation on which the universe is based? Not too big a challenge, all you would need is a massive particle accelerator, an underground facility that large enough to cross a border between two countries, and the ability to accelerate particles to the point where they would slam into each other, releasing all kinds of energy and mass in the process which you could then observe with a series of special monitors. Well, as luck would have it, such a facility already exists. It’s called the CERN Particle Accelerator, otherwise known as the Large Hadron Collider. Roughly twenty-seven kilometres in circumference and operated within a tunnel that lies 175 metres beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland, it is the largest particle accelerator in the world and has already shed much light on some greatest mysteries of physics and the fundamental forces of nature.
CERN, which stands for ConseilEuropéen pour la RechercheNucléaire (or European Council for Nuclear Research in English) is a scientific research council which was established on Sept 29th 1954 in Western Europe by twelve signatory nations. It has since remained itself the Organisation Européenne pour la RechercheNucléaire, (European Organization for Nuclear Research) and has grown to twenty European member states, but has kept the name CERN since OERN seemed awkward!The council’s main purpose was to oversee the creation of a particle physics laboratory in Geneva where nuclear studies would be conducted. Soon after its creation, the laboratory went beyond this and began conducting high-energy physics research as well.
Since that time, CERN has created several particle accelerators and currently operates a network of six accelerators and one decelerator, the most recent and advanced of which is the Hadron Collider which was commissioned in 2008. The main purpose of the collider is to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang when collisions between high-energy particles was taking place. This is accomplished by accelerating two beams of “hadrons” – either protons or lead ions – in opposite directions around the circular apparatus. The hadrons then collide after they’ve achieved very high levels of energy, and the resulting particles are analysed and studied. It is hoped that in conducting these experiments, scientists will be able to answer some of the more difficult questions about the universe. These include, but are not restricted to, the deep structure of space and time, the intersection of quantum mechanics and general relativity, the relationship between matter and antimatter, the possible existence of a Grand Unified Force, and investigate the existence of “Dark Matter”.
We have written many articles about the Large Hadron Collider for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Large Hadron Collider, and here’s an article about the particles injected into the Large Hadron Collider.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Large Hadron Collider. Listen here, Episode 69: The Large Hadron Collider and The Search for the Higgs Boson.