June 15, 2008

Scientists hope the Large Hadron Collider project will help them understand what happened in the Big Bang.Working deep underground, in a quest to recreate the wonders of the universe’s birth, 40 Israeli scientists, engineers and technicians on board the team of a momentous scientific endeavor in Geneva feel like crew members of Columbus’s voyage to the New World.

They are part of an international project known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a massive particle accelerator spanning the border between Switzerland and France.

What this gigantic instrument does, in simple terms, is bash together the tiny particles that make up the universe at mind-boggling speeds, so scientists can observe the extreme energies, mini-black holes, and other phenomena that occurred during the first millionths of a second after the Big Bang, the mother of all explosions, in which all we know was created.

The potential findings “will be more important and have more applications than the first landing on the moon,” says Tel Aviv University (TAU) theoretical physicist Prof. Erez Etzion, who has spent a whole year at the site, joined by Israelis from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, TAU, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, some of whom shuttle back and forth.

“Just as man strives to reach the hottest, coldest and highest places on Earth, we want to reach the smallest particles in the Universe,” says Prof. Ehud Duchovni, a particle physicist at the Weizmann Institute. “And to do so, you have to build the biggest machine in the world. We are going into unchartered territory.”

Like Etzion, Duchovni will be there when the “mini-Big Bang” takes place sometime within the next two months, and will continue to work on the resulting data, helping to translate it into new knowledge for mankind.

Some 6,000 scientists in 50 other countries are participating, with 100,000 computers all over the world connected to function as a giant supercomputer that will work on the data around the clock.

It will take a decade to decipher all the data, but “much new information will already be available during the first few months,” says Etzion.

The project, which cost some $10 billion and took around 14 years to build, is being coordinated by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and is actually the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. The LHC has been built in a circular tunnel buried 50 to 175 meters under Switzerland and France, with a circumference of 27 kilometers.

The participating Israeli universities and the Israel Science Foundation are contributing $12 million towards the project.

In the accelerator tunnel, two beams of protons (one of the basic building blocks of atoms) travel at nearly the speed of light, guided in opposite directions by massive magnets (inside a continuous vacuum). Thousands of detectors – each the size of a refrigerator door and many of them built in Israel – will collect the flood of data.

So big and groundbreaking is the project that lawsuits have been filed against it, alleging everything from a potential “environmental catastrophe,” to fears that the world would be sucked into a tiny black hole created by the extreme energy in the accelerator.

The suits were all rejected, and “the particle collision will not cause all of Europe to be sucked into the tunnel,” laughs Duchovni.
“It is a very ‘green’ experiment that is not nuclear and will not produce dangerous waste or have any environmental implications. The electricity will come from French nuclear power plants.

The mini-black holes we hope will be created will be very hot and just evaporate,” says Duchovni. When he was in Geneva at the beginning of the project in 1985, he asked the scientists there why they didn’t do “something practical instead.”

But he quickly realized that the knowledge likely to be obtained about the Universe will surely have a major impact on the world.

“It will work against poverty and illness. As time passes, the basic scientific knowledge will be applied in a wide variety of fields. Already, CT, PET and MRI imaging machines have improved because of information on magnetic forces and radiation. It will help in the development of x-ray technology [capable of scanning] of whole containers at once to fight terrorism and smuggling, for example.

“Today it is hard even to conceive of the practical benefits from this project.” “We will discover the basic forces that hold the world together,” explains Etzion.

“Just one benefit will be advances in detecting technology, such as the very exact and sensitive ones that have been produced at a special factory on the Weizmann campus.”

The two physicists agree that the high-level of Israeli theoretical and practical know-how is greatly appreciated at CERN, and is much greater than Israel’s proportionate size.

“CERN has ordered parts from our industry and sent experts to visit on a regular basis. Among other things, we excel in soldering tiny parts together,” says Etzion.

“We are among the top eight countries along with scientists from Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the US and the UK,” asserts Duchovni.

Etzion, who is going to CERN again next week and will be in the control room when the button is pressed, calls the project “the biggest and craziest I know. Crazy, because there is no one boss. Nobody decides, but it works like a Swiss watch. We do teleconferences via Skype on our computers all the time and video-conferences with CERN every few days.

“The people at CERN didn’t believe it could function without hierarchy, but because we all have such strong motivation that it should succeed, we all blend well together despite the cultural and language differences. If it fails to produce the data we expect, we will all be blamed together.”

There is a small possibility that all their calculations fail and that “nothing will happen,” concedes Etzion.

“Maybe the physics are hiding beyond the energies we are searching for. Maybe we have lit a very strong streetlight but the coin is too far away to be seen with it,” suggests Etzion, who returned to TAU nine years ago after post-doctoral work at Stanford University, and immediately began to contribute to LHC.

Albert Einstein, some of whose theories are expected to be demonstrated by the LHC, surely would have wanted to be present in the Geneva control room, looking over the scientists’ shoulders, Etzion says with a smile.

As for religious believers who hope the Big Bang will show that the Universe was a Divine creation, and the atheists who want it to prove the opposite, Etzion is certain that both sides will be able to produce their own commentary from the same results.

“It will not harm the beliefs either of the religious or of the non-believers,” he says.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

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