Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Ultimate Questions: CERN Scientists Seek Higgs Boson Particle and Anti-matter

As the Large Hadron Collider begins to deliver results, expectations are growing around answers to some big questions.

The search
‘My experiment is trying to understand more about anti-matter,’ says Dr Tara Shears, ‘and why there doesn’t seem to be any in the universe any more.’ Dr Shears is a Royal Society University Research fellow at the University of Liverpool, and is also working on an experiment at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). There are big questions being addressed. Two of the four experiments, ‘are concentrating on making the big discoveries, they are looking for things like the Higgs Boson particle, which we have never discovered but our theory predicts must exist and it’s very important because if we can’t find it this means that our understanding of the universe is wrong.’
Higgs Boson © CERN
Credit: British Council
Anti-matter
A better understanding of anti-matter, Shears argues, will enable us to explore the universe at a deeper level, to understand how the universe has evolved from the Big Bang to where we are today. As she says, anti-matter sounds like something out of Star Trek but it is real; you get it in radioactive decay. ‘We think half the universe was made from it in the Big Bang, and we might expect half the universe were made of it now. But there is no evidence of a large amount of it anywhere.’ Its signature, she says, would be massive annihilation.

Unexpected benefits
The power of the LHC enables scientists to generate more data than has ever been possible, and what that means, says Dr Shears, ‘is that we are able to look at smaller and smaller stuff in the universe, other types of fundamental particles that have existed at earlier and earlier times in the universe.’ But it’s not only the big, fundamental questions that the LHC research will be addressing. 

Dr Shears argues that boundary-pushing research like this has many unintended practical applications. The most famous application to come out of particle physics research is the World Wide Web. ‘It was developed at CERN in the 1990s to let particle physicists share their information with each other. It’s in CERN’s constitution that any results we come up with, including computing results, we have to give it away for free.’ It’s ‘open’ science. So while we can expect excitement around the experiments, the wider applications are likely to be unexpected and equally dramatic.

Proton Collision © CERN

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