Postcard from... Cern


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The Independent Online

It's just another day of digital carnage in the Hadron Collider, the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator.

Two billion head-on express-train-style collisions occur every second around the clock on the underground 27km circuit (which is the same length as the Circle Line on the London Underground). There are no casualties because these "trains" are very small – only 1.68 femtometres in diameter. But their impact is global. Last July, a Higgs Boson particle was seen escaping one of the crashes, carrying the answer to why we exist. The euphoria has now cooled but the tracking of the link between the mind-boggling hugeness and fantastical minuteness of the universe, goes on: strange quarks, smart quarks, muons and gluons, flashed on screens around the site, like racing results, even in the canteen where scientists, visitors and students circulate with lunch-laden trays, mimicking the 94 per cent of circulating hadrons that do not collide. Of the ones that do, only a tiny fraction can break the supersymmetry and generate Higgs. But "improbable" is not "impossible" in this wonderland of whizzing particles.

ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment), one of the four stations of CERN, will soon recreate quark-gluon plasma, the original life-blood of the universe, and from next month, when the system shuts down briefly for refurbishment, visitors can go down the rabbit-hole and explore the tunnel where the magic happens. "What if", someone asks, " lets you down and all your theories are proved wrong?" An Italian Professor of Particle Physics beams: "Then we know nothing! The field is wide open! And that for a scientist is the best outcome."