Tuesday, July 01, 2008

To get very, very hot, you have to get very, very cold

At the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on the French-Swiss border they are cooling things down. As I write, hundreds of tons of liquid nitrogen and liquid helium are being poured into the magnets that line the 17-mile-long circular tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), around which, in August, subatomic particles -- protons -- will be whirled in opposite directions, faster and faster, until they collide at nearly the speed of light in the most powerful smashups ever witnessed on Earth. The liquid nitrogen and helium helps cool the magnets to a temperature only a smidgen above absolute zero. In that frigid state, the wires of the magnets become superconducting -- electric current flows without resistance -- creating the powerful fields that will hold the speeding particles to their circular courses. The whole multibillion-dollar shebang in a deep, deep freeze.

For what? To create the superhigh temperatures that pertained in the universe a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang. When the protons collide, the focused energy will mimic the first moments of creation. The particles will splatter into primal stuff. Physicists have some idea what they would like to see, but no one knows for sure just what will show up. The Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle"? Dark matter? Dark energy?

The ultrahot radiance of the creation, concentrated in a space tinier than a pinpoint. Nearly ten thousand multi-ton magnets in a 17-mile tunnel cooled to a temperature not unlike that which will characterize the last days of the exhausted universe as it drifts into cold and dark. The ultimate saga of human hubris? Or a magnificent manifestation of human intelligence and curiosity?