Or, an experiment so simple, even a caveman can do it.
In a sense, our scientific curiosity didn’t evolve much since our cavemen ancestors. Let’s take a rock for example. What is it made out of? Even a Neanderthal could tell you that if you smash a rock, you will produce smaller rock pieces. And smashing those smaller pieces, will produce even smaller ones, until there comes a point when we may call them dust.
If we keep dividing those dust particles to a point even barely visible by the world’s most sophisticated equipment, we will encounter what we call molecules. Generally, the high-school science model is more than sufficient for our daily lives, knowing that molecules are composed of atoms, and atoms are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons.
But, as human beings, we are never satisfied with our conquests, and we always strive to climb to higher peaks; or in this case, to venture deeper into the miniature world of quantum physics. This is the domain where the deeper you go, the weirder these miniscule particles behave.
You could think of some of these tiny particles as being filled with mass and having a weight, while others are kind of ghostly and see-through, and are made out of energy. Electrons for example, sometimes behave like particles, but sometimes behave like waves. These weird particle behaviors give physicists a great deal of headache, and mess up their efforts in coming up with a big theory of everything.
Without getting into specifics of Spring Theory, the hottest question right now in physics is what causes some particles to have mass, while others exist as “packets” of energy. In other words, this is an attempt to peek into the fabric of the Universe.
As part of this quest, humanity built one of the greatest and most expensive scientific experiments, called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It consists of 27 km of circular underground tunnels, located at the border between France and Switzerland, and is operated by European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
But, how do they conduct the experiments?
Well, the basic idea did not evolve much since the time the cavemen started smashing two rocks in an attempt to find out if there is anything inside them. LHC also uses this smashing idea. Through its underground tunnels, atomic particles are accelerated at 99.99 percent the speed of light. These particles (protons) will race in opposite directions, and when the right time comes, they will collide. They will “explode” spilling their “guts” full of other sub-particles. The sensors at LHC will record this “crime scene”, and supercomputers will try to make sense of this mess, in hopes of finding clues to the secrets of nature and Universe.
What does this gigantic machine hope to find?
The runner-up in this “contest” is Higgs boson, a particle not yet discovered, but on the verge of making headlines. It is thought that Higgs boson is the particle responsible for making other particles have mass, in this way making them solid and with weight, rather than “ghostly” and made out of energy.
So, is this going to change your daily life?
I am sad to say that discoveries from LHC will not address the problems of unemployment, global economic crisis, poverty, etc. I can tell you that these discoveries will change the world just as much as Galilleo's or Copernicus's discoveries changed the lives of medieval peasants.
Why should we care?
In the grand scheme of things, these discoveries will enable us to ask the right questions. As our worldviews change, our perception of reality will change as well. Whatever is discovered, it will have implications, from understanding the nature of matter, fabric of space-time, and up to the possibility of parallel universes and existence of extra dimensions.
In the next “Scientifically Speaking” we will discuss topics ranging from genetics, space, nanotechnology, and the environment. Stay tuned.
The article was originally written in English.
Illustration: Tara Dougans
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