More than two dozen UC San Diego physicists and technicians began their long-awaited quest last week in a research facility below the Swiss-French border to find a hypothetical subatomic particle that they hope will allow them to finally tie together the fundamental forces and particles in nature into one grand theory.
With cheers, applause and toasts of champagne, hundreds of physicists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, successfully collided beams of protons, moving in opposite directions at close to the speed of light, with an energy greater than has ever been produced before on Earth.
From the millions of subatomic particle collisions in this newly constructed collider, known as the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, the scientists hope to generate tiny fireballs of pure energy, from which new particles never before seen on Earth emerge. That should provide them with clues to improve on and go beyond their basic theory of nature—what they call the Standard Model.
“It’s taken us 25 years to build,” Vivek Sharma, a physics professor at UCSD now working at CERN, said of the LHC in a news conference last week that was reported in newspapers, magazines and broadcasts worldwide ( see video here ). “This is what it’s for. Finally the baby is delivered. Now it has to grow.”
The LHC is the world’s largest scientific experiment, involving an estimated 10,000 individuals from 60 countries, including more than 1,700 scientists and engineers from 95 U.S. universities and laboratories. It will attempt to reproduce, on a miniature scale, some of the same conditions that occurred during the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang, when our universe is thought to have come into being some 14 billion years ago.
The main object or particle of the LHC’s search is the Higgs boson, hypothesized by physicists to have been created in the Big Bang’s fireball and to imbue particles with mass. It has never been detected by any of the world’s previously built colliders. And it is thought to exist at energy levels that only the LHC can reach.
“Finding the Higgs Boson will be a marathon challenge, not an easy sprint,” said Sharma, who will be living at CERN during the next few years to direct and coordinate the Higgs boson search for several hundred physicists at more than 38 countries and 183 institutes worldwide. “But we have set the traps with considerable thought and are confident that we will find it in not too distant future. The thrill of the chase is overwhelming and it will energize us through the course leading to its discovery.”
Sharma and 27 other UCSD physicists and technicians have been shuttling between La Jolla and CERN during their sabbaticals and teaching breaks, for more than a decade now, to make sure that when the LHC is properly operating, data can be collected from one of the European collider’s two big particle detectors—the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS.