Cern special: The 9 billion dollar question

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?

Wednesday 10 September 2008 00:00 BST

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

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