Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The LHC's first collisions

Woohoo! I couldn't, personally, be more thrilled.

No doubt, people who actually understand properly the physics and true awesomeness behind the LHC couldn't be more thrilled either. Even more so than I.

Because, * fanfare *, the first collisions in the new, better-than-broken, up-and-running, ghost-in-the-machine lacking LHC have been observed!

A brief history lesson - the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, is a truly gobsmacking feat of engineering which has taken a decade to build, billions of euros, and, no doubt, the sanity (or at least youth) of a number of engineers who've had to fight various problems, including errant baguette-bearing birds, to finally get it up and running. Properly.

And why has this wonderfully photogenic machine been built? Why, to find new particles! Amongst other things, of course. Of particular interest is the possibility that our scientists may be able to spot the elusive Higgs boson. (I have a fantastic image in my head of scientists in khaki, with binoculars, and a David Attenborough voice-over). The Higgs boson, or 'god particle', has thus far only been theorised, but it's thought that it could be what gives everything in the universe mass.

Basically, it works like this (there's a better explanation here):

The Higgs boson (or particle) carries the Higgs field, which imparts mass to objects as they move through the field, kinda like this...

People evenly distributed in a room, akin to the Higgs field (CERN)

Then Thatcher (yes, yes, I know!) enters the room, people gather, mass increases (CERN)

Of course, the LHC has also lead to howls and terrors from various quarters about its potentially causing the end of the world, or a huge black hole, or something. Amusingly, some physicists even suggested that it (well, the universe) could be sabotaging itself from the future.

But I digress. The news here is that the first collisions have been observed, and they look like this!

The green lines denote changed particles (following the collision), which are, apparently, generally pions (not peons, although those can also be unstable during changing circumstances).

[Pions] are unstable particles consisting of an up quark and an anti-down (or an anti-up and a down). Though they are unstable, they live long enough to nearly always leave tracks in the detector.
Then, the yellow bits denote the silicon strip detectors responsible for recording our particles

After that, it all gets quite technical. A far more knowledgeable account of it, and the source of the quote above, can be found here (which, by the way, is a great blog).

Mostly, I'm just happy she's started up, and I'd like to raise a toast to her: we're happy to have you back with us, dear gal, and we look forward to the show!

There's also a lovely Nat Geog article on it. I love the subheading 'happy physicists' - it's a warm and fluffy thought.
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T said...

aimee said...

indeed! that's where i first saw the maggie thatcher cartoons...