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Atom Smasher Sets New Record


Scientists took their first glimpse into a whole new realm of physics today. They fired up a powerful new particle accelerator - or atom smasher, if you prefer the colloquial term - that straddles the French-Swiss border.

It's hoped that the multi-billion-dollar experiment will help answer some of the deepest questions about our universe and how it came into being. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: Scientists have been working on the Large Hadron Collider for more than 15 years, including an 18-month delay when the first attempt to power it up ended up causing extensive damage. This morning was the moment of truth. Two beams of atomic particles, traveling in opposite directions in a tunnel 17 miles around, were supposed to meet in a head-on collision. After two false starts, the machine finally started to cooperate.

Ms. PAOLA CATAPANO: Be ready for applause very soon. The two beams are getting closer and closer. The counter is now very close to zero.

HARRIS: Webcast host Paola Catapano channeled the excitement of more than 3,000 scientists who had spent year upon year waiting for this instrument to reach this super-high energy level.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. CATAPANO: And here we have - we have the machine in collision mode. It's one o'clock on the 30th of March, 2010, an historical day.

HARRIS: As the two beams came together, the particles inside them did indeed collide with one another at record high energies. They hit the mark of seven tera electron volts, which is more than three times higher than what the next-best particle accelerator in Batavia, Illinois, can muster.

Within moments of that announcement, the four major detectors positioned in various locations around the accelerator ring began reporting that they were witnessing proton collisions at these new high energies. Tom LeCompte from Argonne National Lab was among the legion of scientists eager to dig up gems in this new data.

Mr. TOM LeCOMPTE (Argonne National Laboratory): I've seen some very exciting results, even hours after we took the data. So we're all ready to go.

HARRIS: Do you think anyone has publishable data so far from today?

Mr. LeCOMPTE: I certainly hope so, and I hope it's us.

HARRIS: LeCompte says he'll take at least a few days to examine what he's seen, but like many of the cheering, applauding and champagne-swilling scientists and engineers around him, this is a big day. The first results may win a place in scientific journals, but those glimpses aren't likely to be the big intellectual prizes that scientists have built this machine to find.

Mr. LeCOMPTE: One of the things we're looking for is dark matter, the substance that makes up most of the universe that we can't see, except through its gravitational influence.

HARRIS: Something invisible out there is tugging on us, and we don't know what. LeCompte says when the instrument finally doubles its energy levels a couple of years from now, it might also find a long-sought particle called the Higgs Boson, which by one theory is the key to understanding where all the matter in our universe came from a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

Mr. LeCOMPTE: But what I think we're really all hoping for is just a surprise: We turn this on, and we see something that nobody predicted, and nobody expected.

HARRIS: Over at another instrument at the collider, scientist Guido Tonelli said a little patience is required.

Mr. GUIDO TONELLI (Scientist, Large Hadron Collider): We are just at the beginning. Indeed, we have to do a lot of work. We have to understand our detector, to understand physics in this new region of energy. But if we are lucky, within a few months, we'll be able to really start a major adventure in modern physics.

HARRIS: And today, they got off to a strong start. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Harris
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.