Understanding Particle Physics

The Large Haldron Collider (CERN) is now operating.  The day of the first collision, Bob was wearing his CERN sweatshirt.  We have a relative by marriage who retired from CERN.  Dennis Overbye wrote on March 30 in the New York Times

The soundless blooming of proton explosions was accompanied by the hoots and applause of scientists crowded into control rooms at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which built the collider. The relief spread to bleary-eyed gatherings of particle physicists around the world, who have collectively staked the future of their profession on the idea that the collider will eventually reveal new secrets of the universe.

Among their top goals are finding the identity of the dark matter that shapes the visible cosmos and the strange particle known as the Higgs boson, which is thought to imbue other particles with mass. Until now, these have been tantalizingly out of reach.

I was amused by this second article by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times last Sunday

For those whose physics knowledge was a bit rusty, the news about the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics machine, might have been puzzling.

Yes, the collider finally crashed subatomic particles into one another last week, but why, exactly, is that important? Here is a primer on the collider – with just enough information, hopefully, to impress guests at your next cocktail party.

Let’s be basic. What does a particle physicist do?

Particle physicists have one trick that they do over and over again, which is to smash things together and watch what comes tumbling out.

Here is a particle physicist.

The collider, which is outside Geneva, is 17 miles around. Why is it so big?

Einstein taught us that energy and mass are equivalent. So, the more energy packed into a fireball, the more massive it becomes. The collider has to be big and powerful enough to pack tremendous amounts of energy into a proton.

Moreover, the faster the particles travel, the harder it is to bend their paths in a circle, so that they come back around and bang into each other. The collider is designed so that protons travel down the centers of powerful electromagnets that are the size of redwood trunks, which bend the particles’ paths into circles, creating a collision. Although the electromagnets are among the strongest ever built, they still can’t achieve a turning radius for the protons of less than 2.7 miles.

All in all, the bigger the accelerator, the bigger the crash, and the better chance of seeing what is on nature’s menu.

What are physicists hoping to see?

According to some theories, a whole list of items that haven’t been seen yet — with names like gluinos, photinos, squarks and winos — because we haven’t had enough energy to create a big enough collision.

Any one of these particles, if they exist, could constitute the clouds of dark matter, which, astronomers tell us, produce the gravity that holds galaxies and other cosmic structures together.

Another missing link of physics is a particle known as the Higgs boson, after Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, which imbues other particles with mass by creating a cosmic molasses that sticks to them and bulks them up as they travel along, not unlike the way an entourage forms around a rock star when they walk into a club.

Will physicists see these gluinos, photinos, squarks and winos?


 There is no guarantee that any will be discovered, which is what makes science fun, as well as nerve-racking.

When protons collide, is there a big bang?

There is no sound. It’s not like a bomb exploding.

I’m excited by what we might discover, but I don’t think the pictures will be anything like what the Hubble telescope has sent back.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Particle Physics

  1. Wobderful article. The LHC experiement fascinates me no end and I blogged about it yesterday, too, though in simpler terms — my blog’s agenda doesn’t (or I should amend it to didn’t) include science until yesterday. It elicited interesting comments from the readers, though!

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