Search for Mysteries of Universe Enters New Epoch

GENEVA ~ “Three… two… one… we have a beam,” came the voice of an operator, speaking in a cool, emotionless French.

Those simple words triggered an eruption of joy and relief after the world’s most powerful particle collider – and possibly the greatest experiment in the history of science – passed its first major test this week.Normally shy physicists at the headquarters of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva threw their reserve to the winds on Wednesday as months of tension suddenly snapped.

A volley of cheers and applause broke out in the control room of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), over which could be heard the pop of a champagne cork as a chilled bottle of bubbly was opened to mark the event.

Some CERN veterans had been waiting 19 years for this moment, braving budget overruns, mountainous technical challenges, startup delays and, finally, internet-driven rumors that they would doom the planet with their work.

Operating at energies never before created by mankind, the LHC has the power to unveil novel particles that will resolve some of the deepest mysteries of the cosmos, say its defenders.

“What we are doing is pure science, to advance understanding of the universe we live in,” said CERN physicist Johannes de Groot, a Dutchman.

In a webcast from pre-dawn Chicago, CERN’s rivals at the legendary Fermilab atom-smasher set aside any notion of jealousy.

They staged an LHC “pyjama party,” complete with quirky garments and paper hats, and raised a glass in salute to their fellow physicists.

Fermilab believes it has come agonizingly close to snaring the so-called God Particle – the theorized Higgs Boson whose existence could help explain the nature of matter.

But its collider is weak and ageing, and has just a seventh of the power of the LHC. If the “Higgs” exists, it is now likely to be the muscle machine in Europe, not the United States, that will spot it.

The United States scrapped a rival to the LHC after its costs mounted, choosing instead to retain a foothold in the CERN scheme by contributing to the new collider’s construction.

Despite the humiliation, US Department of Energy Undersecretary for Science Raymond Orbach was fulsome in his praise.

“As the largest and most powerful particle accelerator on Earth, the LHC represents a monumental technical achievement,” he said. “We now eagerly await the results that will emerge from operation of this extraordinary machine.”

Wednesday’s startup entailed injecting the first batch of protons into LHC’s 27-kilometre tunnel, and steering them cautiously around the ring to verify that systems were working properly.

Within an hour, this was completed – a flawless operation that caused the outpouring of joy among exhausted researchers and engineers who had been working up to 80 hours a week for months to check, double-check and triple-check.

One operator described the success as “phenomenal,” given the extraordinary complexity of the LHC.

Tempering the satisfaction, though, was the hard realization that many other tests lie ahead before the LHC can start its real work.

Scientists and industry have broken new ground in crafting the delicate detectors that will trace the wreckage flying from its particle collisions.

The tunnel is the coldest place on Earth, for the magnets that guide the beams are cooled to -271 degrees Celsius.

A farm of 3,000 computers has been built to crunch the data.

The biggest of the four labs is a leviathan called Atlas. It weighs 7,000 tons – almost as much as the Eiffel Tower – and has 3,000 kilometers of cabling.

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