It sounds almost childlike – Speed two things up as fast as they will go, smash them into one another, and see what happens.

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider

That’s the very, very simple version of what’s happening at one of the largest, most complex and most expensive scientific experimental facilities ever built – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland.

But before we pooh-pooh the 10,000 or so scientists involved in creating and running the LHC, let’s look a little closer at what they hope to achieve.

The first thing to understand is that science has a problem: Very small things (the quantum world) obey different laws to larger things (general relativity). And science doesn’t know why.

The one clue they have is that these laws operate through the transference of energy.

So, for instance, An atomic bomb going off does so by an atom being split. The energy released from the next atom being split won’t be quite as strong as the first split, but it will be enough to cause another atom to be split. And so on until the energy being released isn’t enough to split another atom.

The same in the larger world: A rolling snooker ball will transfer part of its energy when it hits another ball at rest on a billiards table, causing the second ball to move, hit another ball, move it, and so on.

The thing is, in each case the transfer of energy happens quite differently.

Scientists had assumed there were only four forces in the universe – Strong and weak nuclear forces, gravitation and electromagnetism. But none of these were able to explain why some fundamental particles have mass.

To explain that, there needed to be another force that was everywhere, all the time. And none of the above four fit that bill.

The Higgs Field was an attempted answer.

It was postulated that the Higgs Field had properties allowing for some fundamental particles to have mass, even though the forces controlling them should (on paper at least) require them to be massless. This idea became known as the Standard Model.

But not all scientists were convinced. Other scientists suggested various Higgsless Models to explain the same phenomena. But like the Standard Model these had their own problems.

Image: www.boston.com

Image: www.boston.com

So scientists decided to find out who was right, and what was missing from each of the theories, by constructing the LHC.

The LHC will (and has been) smashing two of the tiniest things in the universe together, so that scientists may study the energy released when it happens. In a 27 kilometer round superconducting tunnel they have been speeding up two protons to just under the speed of light and smashing them together.

Doing so, they claim, will allow them to discover whether there are other dimensions, create and study black holes, even create other elements (ones not on the Periodic Table). Best of all it will allow scientists to recreate the conditions of a Higgs Field, and thereby determine whether or not it has the properties ascribed to it.

Other experiments hope to shed light on the nature of the four fundamental forces of the universe, why matter and anti-matter aren’t simply opposites of one another (no, they’re not), and whether or not electroweak forces and strong nuclear forces are really just different strengths of the same things.

If all this sounds a bit pie-in-the-skyish then just focus on the possible pay-offs.

Imagine a new man-made element being added to the basic building blocks of existence (the Periodic Table); especially if we could control the properties of this element. Scientists could create metal that heals itself, or lighter than air compounds from which vehicles could be built.

Black holes may permit time travel or teleportation.

And the resolution of the Higgs Field may point the way to tapping an energy that can never run out.

The future is now. Keep an eye on the LHC.

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