Atom smasher now a world-record smasher

By associated press
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

GENEVA -- The world's largest atom smasher broke the world record for proton acceleration Monday, firing particle beams with 20 percent more power than the American lab that previously held the record.

The power of the Large Hadron Collider's proton beams is essential to the project's ultimate goal: smashing particles into each other with enough force to shatter them into the smallest building blocks of matter.

The early-morning test continues the recent successes that have elated scientists who were disappointed by the $10 billion machine's collapse last year during its opening in a 17-mile tunnel under the Switzerland-France border. The breakdown required extensive repairs and improvements.

The collider fired two particle beams at 1.18 trillion electron volts early Monday, surpassing the previous high of 0.98 1 TeV held by the Chicago-area Fermilab since 2001, according to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Physicists measure the energy of the hair's-width beams, not their speed, because the protons are already traveling close to the speed of light and cannot go much faster.

One proton at 1 TeV is about the energy of the motion of a flying mosquito. When a beam is fully packed with 300,000 billion protons with 7 TeV energy -- the goal of the LHC -- it is like an aircraft carrier traveling at 20 knots. That is why scientists are carefully learning how to run it and make sure all protection systems are working, CERN spokesman James Gillies said.

The power level reached Monday isn't significantly higher than Fermilab's. More significant advances are expected during the first half of 2010 when the LHC plans to raise each beam to 3.5 TeV in preparation for experiments that create conditions like those 1 trillionth to 2 trillionths of a second after the big bang.

Physicists hope that will help them understand suspected phenomena such as dark matter, antimatter and supersymmetry and, ultimately, the creation of the universe billions of years ago.

Rolf Heuer, director general of CERN, said the early advances have been "fantastic."

"However, we are continuing to take it step by step, and there is still a lot to do before we start physics in 2010," he said. "I'm keeping my champagne on ice until then." It may take several years before the LHC will in theory be able to detect the elusive Higgs boson, the particle or field believed to give mass to other particles. The discovery would rank among the greatest in physics.

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