Atom smasher gets go-ahead

A £10bn programme will recreate Big Bang with which the universe starte d

Europe's science ministers yesterday committed themselves to a £10bn programme of fundamental scientific research into the ultimate constituents of sub-nuclear matter.

At a Geneva meeting, the member states of Cern - the European Laboratory for Particle Physics - agreed to build a huge atom-smasher or particle accelerator, known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It will be capable of re-creating conditions close to those of the Big Bang. Construction will take 14 years and cost Sfr2.6bn (£1.3bn).

The decision will make Europe pre-eminent in fundamental physics for the next couple of decades, because the LHC will be the largest and most sophisticated machine of its type. Last year American scientists had to abandon similar plans to build an accelerator in Texas when the US Congress refused funding.

Since Cern costs Sfr1bn a year to run, yesterday's agreement means the Europeans are committed to spending more than Sfr20bn over the next 20 years.

The new accelerator will be housed in a circular tunnel 27 kilometres in circumference, deep underground, straddling the Franco-Swiss border just outside Geneva. Although expensive, it is essentially a cut-price machine because it will piggy-back on top of an existing machine, known as Lep. The tunnel was deliberately made large enough to accommodate both machines.

The LHC will accelerate protons, nuclei of hydrogen, the simplest of all the atoms, to speeds approaching those of the speed of light. It will then collide two counter-rotating beams head on. At ultra-high energy, the fireball created by the collisions will re-create conditions close to those of the Big Bang with which the entire universe started.

At these high energies, scientists believe, the fundamental forces and constituents of matter behave more simply than in the everyday world. By studying the debris of the collisions, they hope to understand the most fundamental forces governing the physical universe.

The physicists hope the LHC will produce a particular type of particle known as the Higgs Boson. This may hold the key to understanding why there are such things as massive bodies (such as people, stars and planets) in the universe at all, instead of everything being as insubstantial as a ray of light.

Professor Chris Llewellyn Smith, the British Director General of Cern, welcomed the decision to build the LHC: "I believe this to be a unique commitment to fundamental scientific research. Today's decision has assured a great future for world particle physics."

The machine will be built in two stages. A lower energy version will be constructed to be operational by 2005. After three years, it will be upgraded to the full energy. However, if the USA and Japan decide in the interim that they would like to contribute (allowing their scientists to make use of the machine) then progress will be reviewed in 1997.

A decision could be taken then to go to the full energy by 2005. Construction will be funded out of Cern's existing budget.

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