Cern special: The 9 billion dollar question

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Today, mankind’s greatest experiment begins as the Large Hadron Collider powers up. The cost is huge, the scale is massive – and the discoveries could be enormous. But, asks Andy McSmith, what does it all add up to?

It was Oscar Wilde who declared that "all art is useless" – which was not a condemnation, but a proclamation. If you want to create something of beauty, he meant, do not be distracted by people who ask what it is for. On that basis, whatever emerges from the £4.4bn experiment that begins today in the vast complex built at the Cern – The European Organisation for Nuclear Research – laboratory near Geneva, where infinitesimally small particles travelling at mind-boggling speeds will crash together with so much force that they almost replicate the Big Bang, could be called the most expensive work of art in human history.

Mathematicians and physicists have a sense of the aesthetic, as surely as poets and dramatists. In Einstein's theory of relativity or Kepler's laws of planetary motion, they see works of great simplicity and beauty. What they long for now is a simple and beautiful "theory of everything" that will explain the whole of physics, from the movement of galaxies to the behaviour of subatomic particles, because there is a hole in theoretical physics which causes more distress to the 6,500 scientists working on Cern's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) than the scary speculation about the black hole that some people think will swallow up earth if their experiment goes wrong.

At present, anything big enough for us to see, from a star to a speck of dust, is known to obey one set of physical laws, but at the subatomic level, among those unimaginably tiny particles that are the building blocks of the universe, another set of laws apply. No one has definitively reconciled the two.



Cern scientists make final preparations



Moreover, the best explanation the human race has so far devised for explaining the behaviour of subatomic particles, the so-called Standard Model, is not a work of art, it is a monstrosity. Whereas Einstein's equation relating mass to energy is expressed in just characters, E=mc2, writing out the Standard Model goes on for page after ugly page of symbols.

And even then, it leaves an awkward gap. Put it this way: if you walked beneath the window of a school classroom, and a pupil dropped a feather on your head, you would not mind; but if he dropped a brick, that would hurt, because a brick is heavy and a feather is light. But not according to the Standard Model, because nowhere in the theory is there any indication that particles have mass. Down there among the subatomic particles, all is seemingly weightless. That is very annoying for those great artists who poke at the boundaries of theoretical physics. They want to know why, in the trillionth of a second after it all began with the Big Bang, stuff came into existence where there had been no stuff before. One answer, worked out in theory, assumes the existence of something called the Higgs boson, or more fancifully, the God particle.

To you or me, Higgs boson – if it exists – is so unimaginably tiny that it is no surprise no instrument has found it; but in the subatomic world, it is a monster, a particle so much vaster than all those quarks, Z bosons and other subatomic oddities that it can only exist for an immeasurable fraction of a second before it disintegrates.

Even the LHC will not catch a Higgs boson, if it exists. What the physicists expect, however, is that the machinery will pick up proof that a Higgs boson was there for a fraction of a microsecond, from the debris left behind from its disintegration.

If that happens, science has taken a giant leap forward. We will know something that previously we only supposed. Conversely, if the vast experiment at Cern does not produce a Higgs boson, the theoretical physicists will have to retrace their steps and think a whole new explanation for life, the universe and everything. But cosmologists – who study the biggest things in the universe – are hoping that the unprecedented experiment in Geneva will uncover "supersymmetric particles", because if they exist, they turn the key to one of the great mysteries of outer space – why are galaxies 10 times heavier that they appear to be?

There are two ways of estimating the total mass of a galaxy. You can either study what you can see, and deduce its total mass, or you can study the movement of the stars on the outermost edge of the galaxy, and calculate the gravitational pull. It has been done many times, and each time one of the two methods is used it produces a different result from the other. The discrepancies have been so consistent that the only satisfactory answer is that there is a vast amount of matter in the universe that has mass, but which cannot be seen or detected.

In truth we cannot know what the experiment will throw up. When the particles start to collide in the LHC in October, they will generate an energy that will be like concentrating the energy from a head on collision between two high-speed electric trains into a pinpoint. The theory that the world will vanish in a black hole is only one of the fanciful suppositions about what will happen next. Another is that time travellers will use the wormhole in the space-time continuum generated in the LHC to pay us a visit. Professor Keith Mason, chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council said: "I believe we are poised on the threshold of a new age of physics. Scientists waiting for the LHC dare to ask the biggest questions that exist in modern science. They want to test our understanding of the universe and find out if dark matter exists, whether the four dimensions of space-time are it or in fact there are eleven dimensions! They want to know why some particles have mass and some, like particles of light, don't.

"Using the four detectors... we will be able to look at these mysteries that go to the fundamental nature of the universe."

To the question "what is the use of it all?", the short answer is that it is "useless – but not for long". "No one knows exactly what new fields of knowledge the LHC will open up to us," says Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics. But he forecasts that; "the technological payback will be huge. The need to deal with the vast quantities of data the LHC will produce has already resulted in new grid technology to increase storage and capacity, and improve the capacity of the internet to carry more and more data. And I have no doubt that this will encourage more school students to study physics – exactly what the UK needs to ensure a vibrant future."

And anyone who objects to having nearly £5bn of European taxpayers' money spent on a plaything for boffins should consider this: years ago, the scientists at Cern wanted to improve the means by which they communicated by computer with other scientists around the world, so they designed the World Wide Web. Then they gave the technology away, for nothing. Consider how much money has been made from that free gift... and stop complaining.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all