Saturday, March 15, 2014

Protons, Bosons and other exotic particles ............a visit to the ATLAS Experiment at CERN

Some 100 meters deep in the bowels of the earth below where I stand, millions and millions of protons go around and round in a large 27 km circle that stretches from the Jura in France to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. 

They move faster and faster till they are almost at the speed of light in a tube that is colder than outer space (with temperatures that are close to absolute zero). At four points along the circle, superconducting magnets (like the one in the picture) make the protons deviate ever so slightly from their course so that they are likely to have a head on collision with protons that are are going around in a circle from the opposite direction. The smash or 'event' results in a burst of energy and millions and millions of other particles being formed rather like a glass going up in smithereens after a high speed car crash. 
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The data produced is massive having 500 billion phone calls in a second. Hundreds of computers and high speed cameras (that click 4 million frames a minute) capture the data, filtering out all but the most relevant bits. And even then the data generated is massive: as much as 27 CDs every minute. Computers on site share the data with other offsite computers via the web ..........CERN is also the place where 25 years ago this month, the world wide web was invented for just this reason ..more efficient sharing of information.  

Mural on the external wall at depecits the ATLAS detector and the real thing up close (its twice the size of the building)
Not sci fi but absolute reality and just another day at the ATLAS detector at CERN when its functioning. It is on a well-earned break at the moment after the mind baffling co discovery of the Higgs Bosson particle. That and the kindness of a physicist friend who works there is what afforded the opportunity to go underground for a peep at this man (and women ..there are plenty of women physicists behind this experiment, so forget any stereotypes) made wonder

The detector surrounding the blue collider tube.

As we go to the first underground level feeling very important to have donned red hard hats and walk through narrow cable filled corridors we come to a viewing platform where we come head on with the detector straddling the blue Hadron Collider tube. 

An occasional scientist is doing some maintenance work on the magnets and those human figures are completely dwarfed by this machinery which is 5 stories high and weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower. And yet as our physicst guide assures us, they know the insides of the cables and magnets of this gigantic contraption to the precision of a human hair ! 

By now my mind is spinning as fast as the protons in the Hadron Collider at witnessing the vastness of the forces of the universe re created under the city of Geneva ......

The CERN dome
Maybe as an outside voyeur peeping momentarily into this world, I could be guilty of romanticizing but to me this seems to be one place where collaboration takes precedence over collision (of the human variety) and where petty politics is trumped by particle physics. Over 3000 scientists, 138 institutes and 38 countries collaborate on this experiment, CERN sits across and under two countries belonging to both and neither ……… where countries, people , theoretical and experimental physicists, the geeks and the layman come together and where cosmic mysteries makes all else seem petty and irrelevant. What the human brain can create under these circumstances is as miraculous and as elusive at the Higgs Boson. Seems both have been found at CERN.