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World's Biggest Physics Experiment Moves Closer to Completion

The biggest science experiment on Earth is expected to take a big step forward on Wednesday. As we hear from VOA's Art Chimes, an international team of scientists is getting ready to fire up the Large Hadron Collider, even as skeptics fear it could have disastrous consequences.

Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known by its French acronym, CERN, are planning to send a beam of particles racing around the 27-kilometer ring of the Large Hadron Collider for the first time.

The LHC, as it's known, is the world's most powerful particle accelerator. CERN physicist Tejinder Virdee says it's designed to explore some of the most fundamental questions in physics.

"At the end of this, it is possible that our view of nature, of how the nature works at the fundamental level, would be altered in the same way, for example, that Einstein had altered our view of space and time about 100 years ago," he said. "So the scientific results could be extremely important."

The Large Hadron Collider is housed in a circular tunnel, buried under the French-Swiss border just outside Geneva.

Beams of subatomic protons and other particles will zip around the ring, accelerated up to nearly the speed of light by some 1,800 superconducting magnet systems.

Protons will reach an energy level of 7 trillion electron volts, seven times more powerful than in any existing accelerator. The project has cost an estimated $5.8 billion.

When the LHC goes into full operation, scientists will aim beams of particles directly at each other. When particles collide — up to 600 million times a second — special sensors will detect and record the collisions, and a network of computers will analyze the vast amount of data generated.

It's designed in part to mimic conditions present at the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang, almost 15 billion years ago.

Researchers will also be looking for a subatomic particle known as the Higgs Boson. The Standard Model of particle physics predicts that it exists… but it has never been seen. CERN physicist Mike Seymour says the elusive Higgs Boson has a nickname that conveys its importance.

"People call it 'God's particle' because it really has a very important central role in our whole theory of what everything is made of, of matter," Seymour explained. "Because without the Higgs particle we wouldn't be able to understand why any of the elementary particles have masses. The more we discover about the Higgs mechanism, the more we will understand about the dynamics of the early universe."

As scientists and technicians prepare to send a particle beam all the way around the LHC, some critics have wondered whether attempts to reproduce conditions at the beginning of the universe may create a black hole that could destroy the Earth.

A CERN team that studied the matter concluded there was no danger of that happening, and lawsuits filed by opponents have not succeeded in stopping work on the LHC.

CERN physicist John Ellis says simply, the skeptics are wrong. "LHC is only going to reproduce what nature does every second, it has been doing for billions of years, and all of these astronomical bodies including the earth and the sun, they are still here. So there really is no problem."

Well, let's hope not. The first beam of particles is set to make that 27-kilometer trip around the Large Hadron Collider on Wednesday.