The Powerful, The Strong, The Fast/Subterranean Speed Record; Extreme Engineering; Scientific American Presents; by Nemecek; 4 Page(s)
Outside Geneva, underneath the quiet villages and picturesque farmland of southwestern Switzerland and eastern France, the pace of scientific research is astounding. If you could see the objects physicists will soon be tracking here at the world's fastest particle accelerator-which you won't be able to, even with the most powerful microscope-you'd catch only a glimpse as they zoomed past you at speeds approaching that of light. The facility at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics, is a hotbed of research into such subatomic particles as quarks, gluons and bosons, all infinitesimal yet fundamental building blocks of the universe. And right now an ultrapowerful accelerator is under construction at CERN: the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, will be the largest science experiment ever built, to be used for studying the very tiniest particles in the universe.
I visited CERN in the spring of this year, as the snow was melting and construction on the LHC was in its early stages. Located on the French-Swiss border, CERN is currently home to the Large Electron Positron collider, or LEP. For the past decade, LEP has been generating highly energetic beams of electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, and then smashing the two into each other. The beams pick up speed and energy as they race at more than 660 million miles (one billion kilometers) per hour through a circular tunnel 17 miles in circumference and some 330 feet underground. (Particle accelerators are built underground for a variety of reasons, including the increased stability afforded by the surrounding rock.) Because the beams collide with so much force, the impact produces an impressive spray of particles that scatter in all directions. Centered on the crash sites are detectors, each several stories tall, that enable scientists to monitor the newborn particles.