Brian Cox: We're doing it not because it's easy, but because it's hard

Related Topics

The Large Hadron Collider is all about understanding the forces of nature, and it’s on this understanding that our modern technological world rest. You can trace a direct line through the history of physics, from Newton’s gravity, Faraday and Maxwell’s electronmagnetism, Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus, Eddington’s understanding of the power source of the Sun, and on to the LHC. Everything we take for granted today, from modern medical technology to mobile phones, is possible because we understand how the forces of nature work.

The LHC has been built because our understanding of these forces has shuddered to a halt. The problem lies in understanding the origin of mass in the Universe, which sounds esoteric, but without this understanding we cannot progress. Our current best theory, called the Standard Model of Particle Physics, includes a mechanism for generating the masses of all the particles in the Universe called the Higgs mechanism. This theory predicts the existence of a particle called the Higgs Boson. If the Higgs exists then the LHC will find it, opening a door to a new and deeper understanding of the forces of nature.

What’s happened in Geneva over the last few days has genuinely surprised me, and I suspect many of my colleagues. The LHC is an incredibly complicated machine, and it is very challenging to wake the machine up again after last years’ accident and begin to circulate particles around it, never mind to collide them. I heard an engineer last year say that circulating particles around the LHC was like threading a 27km piece of wet cotton through the eye of a needle with one hand behind your back.

Given that they only switched the machine back on last week, the results we have seen so far have been amazing. I really wouldn’t have expected progress like this until after Christmas - I worked at a particle accelerator in Hamburg in the 1990s and that machine took two or three years to really start behaving itself. So to get particles colliding after a couple of days is breath taking. For once it’s not hype.

Admittedly, we are right at the start of the journey. Energy levels in the collider at the moment are about 0.5 TeV – still a huge way off the machine’s maximum operating level of 7 TeV. CERN are now aiming for 1.2 TeV before Christmas, which will already make LHC the world’s most powerful collider overtaking the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago. It’s then a case of gradually increasing the energy to levels around 3.5 TeV, which is the probably the level we’d like for ground-breaking discoveries. I’d expect the machine to hit that sometime in the New Year.

As all this is happening, there will be lots of interesting data for the particle physicists and engineers, allowing them to calibrate their detectors and better understand this wonderful machine. In engineering terms, the LHC is as difficult as going to the moon. The technology is right on the edge, which is exactly where we need to be as a civilization. As just one example, the superconducting magnet technology being pioneered and understood in the LHC today is what you need to build nuclear fusion power stations, which may well be the key to solving our long-term energy crisis.

I would guess that it will be three years at least before the big headline discoveries, like Higgs Bosons or the nature of Dark Matter start emerging. This is the start of a long and exciting road that will last decades. But as JFK said when he launched America on a path to the Moon, we do these things “not because they are easy but because they are hard".

Brian Cox is professor of particle physics and Royal Society university research fellow at the University of Manchester

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: European Sales Director - Aerospace Cable & Wire

£100000 - £125000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Project Manager

£17100 - £22900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an intermediate help de...

Recruitment Genius: CNC Turner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This long established manufactu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Caitlyn Jenner's first shoot is a victory - but is this really best version of femininity we can aspire to?

Sirena Bergman
The sun balances next to St Albans Church in Earsdon, North Tyneside.  

The world’s nations have one last chance to slow climate change

Michael McCarthy
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral