Chances are you’ve heard of the European Council for Nuclear Research. Maybe not. More commonly referred to as CERN, the letters fall into the correct order if you say it in French.
Based in Geneva, they splash the cash on colossal science experiments. Their flagship project is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet.
Now, a €20bn successor to the LHC is planned. At 100km, the new circular tunnel is proposed to be almost four times the size of the current machine.
Unless you’ve devoted your life to physics research, it’s not straightforward to grasp the purpose of such atom-smashing and money-flashing experiments.
Small secrets of the universe
Working with electrons, hadrons, quarks, and particles with names like “up”, “down”, “top”, and “strange”, CERN’s aim is to understand the fundamental building blocks of all matter.
In essence, answering the question “What is everything made of?”. Since the era of the nuclear bomb we’ve been able to split the nucleus of an atom. Now, we’re delving inside the protons and neutrons within the nucleus, and seeing how far we can keep zooming in until there’s no further, and no smaller, to go.
What’s the point?
It doesn’t seem long ago that political points were scored by proclaiming “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Our government can’t truly believe their most absurd rhetoric, especially as the UK is still part of large gatherings of experts like CERN, regardless of Brexit.
Anyone recently emerging from a cave claiming science is not important need look no further than to who the public turned in the midst of this pandemic. Not political posturers or business bravados, but knowledgeable nerds. Doctors and professors, epidemiologists and virologists.
As Professor Marcus Du Sautoy writes in What We Cannot Know, “In the human race’s constant battle with death, science is its best ally.”
Science places opinion and partisan preference aside. Instead, evidence rules. Peer review and collaborative consensus decide what drives progress.
Ok. What’s the point of a particle accelerator?
When searching for the Higgs boson, the purpose of the LHC project was clear.
The existence of the Higgs particle was predicted by particle physics theory. Named after Peter Higgs – a British Nobel Prize laureate – an inapt nickname of the “God particle” caught on for the purpose of media headlines.
Particle theory describes the existence of the Higgs particle within a certain range of high energy levels. The current collider was purpose-built to produce these energies.
If scientists could experimentally demonstrate proof the Higgs boson existed, then theoretical physics was on the right track. If not, the Standard Model of subatomic particles would be broken, and a complete rethink required.
The 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson was, therefore, the ideal scenario for a new theory; it made a physical prediction, which was subsequently confirmed by experiment. The LHC enriched our understanding of the universe and validated the Standard Model we use to describe matter at the smallest scale.
Sounds useful if you like physics… but why an upgrade?
The proposed next generation machine, dubbed the Future Circular Collider (FCC), is pitched as an exploratory mission. New and improved, it could probe to smaller distances at greater precision. Higher energies also present opportunities to discover more particles.
Potentially, FCC experiments could even shed light on dark matter. This mysterious material outweighs all visible matter in the universe by six to one and is essential in holding galaxies together. Like Higgs before it, its existence is inferred by theory, but experimental evidence is necessary to deepen our understanding.
So, €20bn could just go down the drain?
Yes, but at the end of that drain, 100m underground, you’d find the world’s largest freezer which, if nothing else, is pretty cool.
Strangely enough, the magnets used to guide particles are lowered to temperatures three times colder than anywhere found in nature, yet a collision can heat a tiny space within the collider to over 100,000 times the core temperature of the Sun.
Exciting as the physics may be, a key hurdle is whether plans for the FCC will receive the required capital investment. The project goal isn’t as well-defined as with the hunt for the Higgs particle, and this is where some opposition is bound to arise.
European economies will prioritise dealing with the fallout of covid-19 in the immediate future. Even once we’re back to a “new normal”, there will still be a climate catastrophe to avert. So, the €20bn question: is now the best time to be spending big on CERN’s theoretical playground?
• With special thanks to my year ten students who contributed some fun facts to this article.
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