CERN particle accelerator 224 88.
(photo credit: AP)
It probably won't turn out to be quite as exciting as a black hole swallowing up planet earth, but the world's largest ever experiment, which kicks off on Wednesday, is still likely to take human knowledge a thrilling leap forward.
Three of the 30 Israeli professors, students and technicians who have taken part in preparations for the historic launch of the gargantuan particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project, are already at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) site spanning the Swiss and French borders.
The three are Prof. Giora Mikenberg of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Prof. Erez Etzion of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Shlomit Tarem of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. They are participating in one of the greatest collaborative efforts ever attempted in the physical sciences - the result of more than a decade of work and $14 billion - which includes over 6,500 scientists from over 80 countries, and half of the world's particle physics researchers.
What the massive instrument does, in simple terms, is bash together the tiny particles that make up the universe at mind-boggling speeds, so scientists can observe the extreme energies, mini-black holes, and other phenomena that occurred during the first millionths of a second after the Big Bang, the mother of all explosions, in which all we know was created.
The work is so groundbreaking that it has spurred fears it might create a black hole that will suck up the world and perhaps the entire universe, but scientists say that's more the stuff of sci-fi than reality.
No real results will be immediately available for weeks, months or even years, but the ultimate hope is that the findings will help explain the foundations of particle physics, and shed light on the basic forces and building blocks of nature.
Prof. Avner Soffer of Tel Aviv University's Physics and Astronomy School - who has been involved in the project for only two years - said from his office that he is rather jealous of the three Israelis now at CERN but will go there for a two-week "shift" next month. "What happens tomorrow is a milestone. It will be the first time they're gong to circulate one beam in the whole ring. It is not yet the final configuration of two beams colliding, with the staff raising the energy level and the number of protons in each beam. That will happen sometime later on this year."
On Wednesday, participants will be able to say if the giant device works. But this is only the beginning, said Sofer. "We all want as many collisions as possible. It certainly won't destroy all of Geneva," as some laymen mistakenly believe - having even gone, unsuccessfully, to an international court to prevent it. "The experiment is just like turning on a new light so there will be more light. The project won't do anything that doesn't occur in nature every day, as there is natural cosmic energy. It is safe. The theory is that the universe has other dimensions, and this - among other things - will show whether it is so."
But this is just the culmination of a decade's work by an international team of scientists. "It is the beginning. It won't end. It will just be done better each time," said Soffer. The great physicist Albert Einstein, if he was alive, "would have been happy to be there and see how his theories hold up. We know many things about the universe that were not known when he was alive."
As for Britain's Prof. Stephen Hawking, who has theorized about black holes and other things that will be investigated, "I don't know if he will be there, but he certainly will be fascinated with the ongoing results."
It is difficult to point to specific benefits to mankind that will accrue from the LHC, certainly not immediately. "One scientist said that while it may not save lives, it will make life worth living because we learn more about the universe and satisfy our curiosity," joked Soffer, but as this field so far has brought about magnetic resonance imaging, global positioning systems and other technologies, "I am sure this will lead to benefits to man in the years to come."
Laymen friends sometimes mock him for his intense interest in and devotion to the project. "My wife wants to hear about it, and my teenage children think it's a bit goofy, but when it's discussed on TV they're quite impressed."
Tarem of the Technion - who heads the "Atlas team" (for the giant detector that will measure the rate of particle collision when the LHC is turned on) at CERN, said before her departure that the LHC will be central to the next generation of experiments at CERN, enabling scientific investigations that have never been possible before. It is the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator, and when it is switched on, two parallel tubes within the tunnel will carry high-energy particles in opposite directions at close to the speed of light. When the particles smash together, scientists hope to discover a new frontier of knowledge which will shed light on the unresolved questions of science, through for example the search for the elusive 'God particle' to explain the origin of particle mass, particles that could make up dark matter and the existence of extra dimensions of space."
Tarem added: "We will throw the protons at one another at a speed close to the speed of light and try to measure what is created, using a system of detectors located on all sides of Atlas. This is in the hope that we can capture the heavy, energetic particles and the light particles created after fading. The detectors are supposed to be the last in the chain and have to detect the muons - the most energetic particles," she said. "We hope this experiment will enable us to learn how nature functions. It is amazing to work with leading scientists from around the world on this experiment and it may be that because of the knowledge gathered, we will know better why all of us exist in this universe."