GENEVA (Reuters) - International physicists at a vast underground complex near Geneva launch a 20-year project on Wednesday to re-enact the “Big Bang” to try to explain the origins of the universe and how it came to harbor life.
In a giant machine called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, at the CERN research centre straddling the Franco-Swiss border, they plan to smash particles together to create, on a small-scale, re-enactments of the event that started up the cosmos.
The LHC will use giant magnets housed in cathedral-size caverns to fire beams of energy particles around a 27-km (17-mile) tunnel where they will collide at close to the speed of light.
Computers will record what happens each time in these mini versions of the primeval fireball and the vast store of material gathered will be analyzed by some 10,000 scientists around the globe for clues on what came next.
Scientists at CERN, the 54-year-old European Organization for Nuclear Research, close to the foothills of the French Jura mountains, will pursue concepts such as “dark matter,” “dark energy”, extra dimensions and, most of all, the “Higgs Boson” believed to have made it all possible.
“The LHC was conceived to radically change our vision of the universe,” said CERN’s French Director-General Robert Aymar. “Whatever discoveries it brings, mankind’s understanding of our world’s origins will be greatly enriched.”
CERN scientists have been at pains to deny suggestions by some critics that the experiment could create tiny black holes of intense gravity that could suck in the whole planet.
Cosmologists say the Big Bang occurred some 15 billion years ago when an unimaginably dense and hot object the size of a small coin exploded in what was then a void, spewing out matter that expanded rapidly to create stars, planets and eventually life on Earth.
But the 10 billion Swiss franc ($9 billion) CERN project, begins with a relatively simple procedure: pumping a particle beam around the underground tunnel.
Technicians will first attempt to push the beam in one direction round the tightly-sealed collider, some 100 meters (yards) underground.
Once they have done that -- and CERN officials say there is no guarantee that success will come immediately or even in the first days -- they will project a beam in the other direction.
And then, perhaps in the coming weeks, they will pump beams in both directions and smash the particles together -- but initially at low intensity.
Later, probably near the end of the year, they will move on to produce tiny collisions that will recreate the heat and energy of the Big Bang, a concept of the origin of the universe that now dominates scientific thinking.
The detectors will monitor the billions of particles that will emerge from the collisions, capturing on computer the way they come together, fly apart or just simply dissolve.
It is in these conditions that scientists hope to find fairly quickly the Higgs Boson, named after Scottish scientist Peter Higgs who first proposed it in 1964 as the answer to the mystery of how matter gains mass.
Without mass, the stars and planets in the universe could never have taken shape in the aeons after the Big Bang, and life could never have begun -- on Earth or, if it exists as many cosmologists believe, on other worlds either.
The experiment is not without detractors.
Websites on the Internet, itself created at CERN nearly 20 years ago as a means of passing particle research results to scientists around the globe, have promoted claims that the LHC will create black holes sucking in the planet.
“Nonsense,” say the CERN -- and other leading scientists. “The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction,” declared Aymar.