Scientists monitor the injection of proton and ion into the Large Hadron Collider, which is 100 meters underground near Geneva, Switzerland, 23 Oct 2009
Scientists monitor the injection of proton and ion into the Large Hadron Collider, which is 100 meters underground near Geneva, Switzerland, 23 Oct 2009

A very specialized group of scientists meets this month (July 22 - 28) in Paris for a biennial conference on high energy physics and among the topics are the accomplishments of the Large Hadron Collider, more commonly known as the "Big Bang Machine."  The issues are complex, but are they too esoteric to mean much to the wider public?

It is a select community - about 10,000 scientists in the field of particle physics - studying the smallest bits of matter and energy in the universe, what they are made of and how they interact.

At this year's conference, scientists from the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) present their findings on experiments conducted on the Large Hadron Collider.  The giant scientific instrument, 100 meters underground near Geneva, sends beams of proton particles hurtling through tunnels at ever higher speeds and causes some of these particles to collide.

"What we are really trying to do is basically when we do these collisions at very high energy - we can produce a bundle of energy that can be then transformed into new particles," explains Professor Joe Incandela, the deputy head of one of the main experiments at the Collider. "We want to study these new particles and the reason is ...  that particles that do not even exist in the real world, that we do not necessarily see, but can exist, actually influence how the universe operates."

What does it do?

The Large Hadron Collider is often called the "Big Bang Machine" because it seeks to recreate the kind of energy that was present within a fraction of a second after the so-called Big Bang, the moment when scientists believe the universe was formed.  It understandably is fascinating for scientists, but is it of interest to only the select few and not for the broader public?  

Particle physicist William Murray, of Britain's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, thinks not. 

"I think you are making it sound too far away and too remote.  Actually what we are dealing with here is the way the world works now - everything you see interacting around us," said Murray.


Murray says it is not the first time such scientific experiments have been labeled as too distant, too theoretical.

"The same discussion took place with electro-magnetism 150 years ago," said Murray.  "People said what is the point?  You are doing lab experiments on a field?  But, as we know today that electro-magnetism is central to a huge amount of our lives - all the paraphernalia of lights and computers and motors works through this phenomenon."

Scientists argue the quest for new frontiers and answers is age old, as Professor Incandela points out.

"What we are doing is part of something that has been going on - at least in Western civilization, at least maybe 3,500 years when the Greeks started asking questions about the physical world - it was exactly that line that led to the understanding of gravity with Galileo and Newton ...  Newton's formulas led to the mechanical capabilities of engineering that fostered the initial industrial revolution," said Incandela.  "The same line of investigation then spread into innovation of electricity of the light bulb.  With quantum mechanics you can design things like a transistor, which leads to computing."

Advance scouts

Incandela describes himself and his colleagues as the advance scouts looking for information that will feed future technology.  And, there is more, he says.

"It turns out that this stuff is so exciting to scientists that we draw a lot of brilliant people into our field and to do what we do, which is very difficult, we invent many new things," said Incandela.  "At CERN, because there are so many scientists working here from so many countries and we have to share so much information, it was at CERN that we developed something called the World Wide Web - the Web was born at this laboratory."

The Web has become a part of daily life for many people around the world.  Incandela says experimenting is just human nature.

"Maybe part of what humans are supposed to do is observe.  What we want to do as a race, if you like, is to understand our positions in the universe, and to do that, you have to understand the universe."

Maybe not just for the select few after all.