A Collision Course for Physics
Excitement is building among high-energy physicists as construction in Europe of a huge new particle accelerator nears completion, with the first experiments scheduled for next year. It will be the purest exercise of pure science with researchers spending billions of dollars pursuing knowledge with no practical use, but that could add to our understanding of the universe’s fundamental constituents.
The new machine, called the Large Hadron Collider, is being built in a 17-mile circular tunnel straddling the border between Switzerland and France. It will send protons whizzing in opposite directions around the ring, and sophisticated detectors will measure what happens when some collide. The United States started building an even more powerful machine, the Superconducting Supercollider, in a 54-mile ring tunnel in Texas, but Congress axed that project in 1993 for budget savings.
What researchers hope to learn with the new accelerator was described by Dennis Overbye in Science Times. At the very least, they hope to detect evidence of the elusive Higgs boson, a long-predicted particle that is believed to impart mass to other particles. They will also be looking for new forms of matter and for evidence of supersymmetry, a notion that could unite all forces of nature into a unified theory. A long shot would be evidence of new dimensions or tiny black holes.
There is always the possibility that the collider will find little of scientific interest. In that case, high-energy physics would be at an impasse, and physicists might have to accept what some have already declared: that the 20th century was the Age of Physics, while the 21st, spurred by the mapping of the human genome, will be the Age of Biology.