Deep below the surface of the earth outside Geneva, Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider is poised to answer some of physicists’ most pressing questions about the origin and structure of the universe. What new conceptions of the cosmos await us?
Last November, my wife and I got tickets to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Doctor Atomic, a three-hour performance about the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project during World War II to develop the atomic bomb. Although the opera was being performed live at the Met on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we were in London, where the show was being transmitted, live and in high definition, to the sixty-five-foot-high screen at the British Film Institute’s IMAX theater by the Thames. Even for tech-savvy Gen Y’ers who take scientific wonders like the iPhone for granted, this struck us as being pretty amazing. Trillions upon trillions of photons (the quantum particles that make up light) are captured by video cameras focused on the stage in New York while the molecular vibrations we call sound beat against microphones, instantly translated into electromagnetic fields racing along metal wires. Then the encoded video and audio signals are electronically processed and synchronized, beamed up to a satellite orbiting the earth, and streamed back down to the U.K. to be reconverted into sounds and images resembling the originally recorded forms. All happening in real time, all happening at nearly the speed of light.
I think Robert Oppenheimer would have been amazed too.
A genius and polymath who loved to quote Baudelaire in French and expanded his linguistic repertoire so he could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit, Oppenheimer was known for his fascination with the larger, even spiritual, implications of human beings gaining increasing mastery of the fundamental forces of the physical world. Upon the first successful detonation of a nuclear bomb at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer famously recalled that two lines from the Gita came to mind as he watched, with a scientist’s relief and a mystic’s awe, the blinding explosion of light and the mushroom cloud that followed. The first was, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” The second was more ominous: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Sixty-four years later, we stand at the brink of another potentially world-changing—though hopefully less destructive—foray into the nuclear realm. This summer near Geneva, Switzerland, the massive new particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will finally become fully operational, opening a new window onto the subatomic universe for physicists around the globe.
Built in the shape of a giant ring seventeen miles in circumference, costing more than eight billion dollars, and meticulously constructed by ten thousand scientists and engineers over a period of thirteen years, the LHC is the largest and most sophisticated scientific instrument ever devised, a massive marvel of human ingenuity buried more than five hundred feet below ground on the border between Switzerland and France. Using pulsing magnets with a cumulative power of fourteen trillion electron-volts, the device will accelerate streams of atomic particles to over 99.999 percent of the speed of light from opposite directions and crash them into each other, replicating explosive conditions similar to those believed to have existed just a billionth of a second after the big bang, when the universe was a seething miasma of quantum chaos. By closely analyzing what happens in these intense collisions, which will happen up to six hundred million times per second in each of the LHC’s four giant experimental detectors, scientists hope to shed light on some of the biggest mysteries of existence. They’re seeking answers to questions like: Does the theoretical “God particle” actually exist? Are there higher dimensions beyond our three-dimensional universe? Why is gravity so much weaker than the other three fundamental forces of physics? What is the enigmatic “dark matter” that pervades the cosmos? What happened in the very first nanosecond of the big bang? And what, if anything, existed before our universe burst into being?
When the LHC was first activated by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, on September 10, 2008, the media frenzy it stirred up overshadowed even the U.S. presidential election at times, helped in no small measure by rampant rumors that the experimental device might spawn miniature black holes that could devour the earth. Parents allegedly phoned CERN, begging them to shut down the LHC for the sake of their children’s lives. At least one American physicist received a death threat for his involvement with the European atom-smasher. And even though many of the countless news articles, blog posts, and BBC and CNN segments about the LHC featured respected scientific authorities asserting that such apocalyptic scenarios were scientifically spurious, such reassurances didn’t seem to reach some of humanity’s more superstitious quarters. In India, people reportedly flocked to temples in fear and a sixteen-year-old girl named Chaya tragically killed herself, terrified that the world would come to an end when the LHC was activated the next day.
Although the collider clearly has not destroyed the planet, an electrical fault did cause a minor explosion just nine days after the LHC’s activation, necessitating an immediate shutdown of the device until repairs can be completed this spring. Since then, public interest in the project appears to have dropped considerably. But for those scientists who have closely followed the LHC’s construction since the early 1990s and speak of it in reverential tones, the excitement hasn’t waned in the slightest. Having recently spoken with some of them, I’m beginning to understand why. For them, the LHC is truly a kind of “God machine,” and not just for its mind-boggling size, incredible sophistication, and awe-inspiring power. No, the LHC is a God machine because it will allow human beings to play God like never before—reproducing, in a controlled setting, the same energetic conditions that defined the moment of creation, 13.73 billion years ago, when the universe was less than one-billionth of a second old and had only expanded to about the size of a solar system.
In the summer of 1945, Oppenheimer marveled at the force he had released by splitting the atom, which suddenly granted to humanity the kind of power that had previously been the province of the Divine. Now, in the summer of 2009, a new and similarly ambitious physics experiment will begin. There can be little doubt that the discoveries made by the LHC will have repercussions that extend beyond the strictly scientific realm, broadening, deepening, and perhaps even redefining our understanding of the universe and our place in it. So what mind-expanding machinations will soon be stirring deep below Geneva?