When particles collide

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

The Large Hadron Collider, found on the French-Switzerland board, is known as the world's largest single machine. (Photo courtesy of CERN)

It’s big. It’s powerful. It’s a lean, mean, superconducting, particle-accelerating machine and with luck, the Large Hadron Collider might just accelerate us into a brighter future.

Despite being the backdrop to several ‘sciencey’ scenes in movies, or even a plot device as a doomsday machine/mankind’s saving grace, a shocking percentage of the educated populous don’t know what the Large Hadron Collider does. Ponder no more, dear readers!

First of all: Location. The LHC (as it’s commonly known) is lovingly nestled in depths of the French-Switzerland border, conveniently near Geneva. There, the world’s largest single machine rests 574 feets under the earth in a tunnel. That's about 17 miles in circumference (Hey, they don’t call it ‘Large’ for nuthin’). There it hangs around and smashes subatomic particles to it’s little heart’s delight (more on that later).  

Let’s get to the nitty gritty.

First of all: What exactly IS a hadron? Besides being a potential unfortunate spelling error, a hadron is essentially a subatomic particle. If you recall the salad days of your high school physics and chemistry classes, you’ll know that atoms are made up of three particles protons  neutrons (which form a dense nucleus in the center of the atom and make up most of its mass) and electrons, which fly around the nucleus in a “cloud” and form the basis for the chemical reactions between atoms and molecules.

Hadrons are divided into three categories baryons (Protons and neutrons) and mesons (which are on the smaller side). Each hadron, in turn, is made up of tiny little particles called “quarks”. Baryons are made up of three quarks, depending on what the type of baryon is. Protons, for example, are made up of two “up” quarks and one “down” quarks. These quarks are held together by a binding force.

Keeping up? Good job!

Back to the Large Hadron Collider. It’s essentially a giant particle accelerator, which means that it takes hadrons, such as electrons and neutrons, and shoots them at objects at ridiculous velocities-- nearly approaching the speed of light, in some experiments.

When accelerating a particle, scientists will place it in a ring of electromagnets, much like a racehorse track. When the electromagnets are activated, the repelling force of the magnets will cause the particle to speed up. Each time it makes a full circle, the particle accelerates until it reaches the desired speed. When that occurs, researchers can observe and compare different particles at different speeds, or aim the particles at a given target-- often thin strips of metal or foil.

In this way, scientists can emulate cosmic rays in space. Look at how crystals can help steer particles at high speeds, and even help develop new, radiation-based cancer treatments, by figuring out how to aim tumor-destroying particles and atoms directly at cancerous tissue, without damaging the surrounding healthy tissue.

One of the biggest breakthroughs of the LHC is the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in 2013. Using the LHC, scientists were able to detect the presence of the so-called ‘God particle’ which is more or less responsible for allowing particles to interact, and for atoms bonding together. The only way to view this fabulous force (which is unstable in normal conditions), is to view it at high speeds-- which is right up the LHC’s alley. Using this, scientists can determine how exactly the universe holds itself together. (Though that’s a topic for another Weird Wednesday.)

Despite what protestors, news anchors and your paranoid grandma all tell you, the LHC poses little risk for creating a massive black hole that will swallow up the earth. There has been speculation that particle smashing may produce “quantum”, microscopic-sized black holes, but this is still under debate-- plus, they’re too small to really threaten existence in any case. Sorry, sci-fi writers!

Of course, what with there being a Large Hadron Collider, it begs the question: Is there a Small Hadron Collider?

Not officially. The Large Hadron Collider is so named because it’s freaking enormous, but in terms of relativity there isn’t an official, baby-brother particle accelerator to go along with it. You can, however, fill this obvious gap by building your very own Small Hadron Collider! While I won’t go into detail about it (I only have so much space), it just takes some circuitry, stripboards, magnets and patience before you can start smashing particles in your own home. You can even make one out of a Pachinko machine if you want to.

Because the Large Hadron Collider is such a large topic to cover, I’m going to make this column a two-parter. Physics nerds, rejoice: The particle theory has been doubled! Keep an eye out next week for the history and more on the physical structure of the LHC, in the thrilling conclusion to this Weird Wednesday. See you soon!

Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.