The long wait for the world’s biggest physics experiment ended last March. After 25 years of planning and $10 billion spent in construction, the Large Hadron Collider started smashing protons together at more than 99 percent of the speed of light in a 17-mile-long circular tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border. Each collision creates a subatomic fireball that mimics the first trillionth of a second of the universe’s existence.
The first year’s collisions have produced an unexpected wealth of particles. “The number is 25 percent higher than what was predicted by the models,” says Sergio Bertolucci, director of research at cern, which built and operates the collider. It will take at least several months before physicists know exactly what is happening in those collisions; first they will have to sift through the 1.25 gigabytes of data that pour from the lhc detectors every second.
Among the new particles emerging from the collider’s mini-fireballs, physicists hope to find the Higgs boson, which according to theory is responsible for endowing all other particles with mass. “I personally think that we will find the Higgs in the next year or year and a half,” Bertolucci says. Other quarry include so-called supersymmetric particles, a possible constituent of the dark matter that holds galaxies together.
The lhc is scheduled for a 15-month shutdown in 2012 to make sure it can handle the even higher energies it was designed for. But that date is flexible. “If in 2011 we have hints of new physics, we will not stop; we will keep going,” Bertolucci says. “There’s an old saying: The best is the enemy of the good.”