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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

LHC surpasses its own record as the world's most powerful particle accelerator

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CERN control roomThe Large Hadron Collider, the so-called big bang machine outside Geneva, has eclipsed its own world record as the highest-energy particle accelerator in history. The collider, commonly known as the LHC, accelerated its twin proton beams to 3.5 trillion electron-volts, or TeV, Friday morning, according to a prepared statement from CERN, the European lab for particle physics that operates the LHC.

In November the collider worked its beams up to 1.18 TeV, breaking the record of 0.98 TeV that had been held by Fermilab's Tevatron in Illinois. The following month CERN steered those beams—one clockwise, one counterclockwise—into a head-on smashup with a total energy of 2.36 TeV, the highest-energy collision ever seen.

The objective in ramming such high-energy particles together is to probe their makeup and to observe the shower of particle debris that sprays from the collision. The LHC should be sufficiently powerful to probe the energetic first moments of the universe's evolution after the big bang and may be able to fill in a number of chapters now missing from fundamental physics. Prominently, it could find the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle that imbues other particles with mass; it might also identify the particle culprit that makes up the mysterious galaxy-shaping stuff known as dark matter.

CERN says it will soon announce a timeline for converging the 3.5-TeV beams, which together will yield another record: a collision at 7 TeV. That will be the LHC's peak collision energy for 18–24 months before the collider shuts down in 2012 for a year of hardware repairs; only after that will CERN fire up the LHC at its design energy of 7 TeV per beam, producing 14-TeV collisions. But given how much physicists have learned from the much weaker Tevatron, even a half-strength LHC may have a chance to open up new realms of physics.

Photo of CERN personnel in the control room during the LHC's record-breaking run: M. Brice / CERN

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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