The Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest atom smasher, has set a record for high-energy collisions. The multibillion dollar LHC has crashed proton beams at energy levels three and a half times higher than previously achieved at a particle accelerator.
After getting off to a rocky start in the fall of 2008, the $10-billion Large Hadron Collider is finally living up to its promise.
Physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, hope the LHC will explain what happened in the first split seconds after the Big Bang, the theoretical explosion some scientists believe created the universe nearly 14 billion years ago.
The LHC's record-shattering proton-proton collisions created a combined energy level of seven trillion electron volts. Head of CERN's accelerator operations group, Mike Lamont, calls this a major milestone.
"We really are making a big step between what has been done before," he said. "The nearest rival is the Tevetron at Fermilab in Chicago in the States. This is three and a half times the energy that they are running at. We really are pushing the boundary. There is a good chance, we will discover new stuff out here," said Lamont.
The new stuff, as he calls it, includes answering question about the existence of antimatter and possibly finding the Higgs boson - an elusive particle physicists theorize could enable them to explain why matter has mass.
Lamont says it will take quite awhile before physicists are able to analyze the data they get from the collisions and get some results.
"We really are looking for a very, very small needle in a very, very big haystack here," said Lamont. "It depends on what you are looking for. If you are looking for Higgs, we need to roll the dice an awful lot of times before the experiments can be sure they have seen it. If there is something new and exotic out there, it might be staring at us in the face very soon," he added.
The LHC is built in a 27-kilometer tunnel below the Swiss-French border near Geneva. Four major experiments are now gathering data from the collisions produced by this massive machine. CERN calls this a historic moment.
Physicists say the collisions produced in the LHC will address some of the major puzzles of modern physics such as the origin of mass, the grand unification of forces and the presence of abundant dark matter in the universe. They say exciting times are ahead.