The CERN Supercollider has a way of fading in and out of the news, probably because their spate of research doesn’t always lend itself to a sexy headline. But this week the news is big enough that it nearly eclipses the report on a cricket with the world’s largest testicles. (They account for 14 percent of his body weight. Admit it, you wanted to know.)
On Monday, researchers at CERN announced that they used the Large Hadron Collider to smash lead ions together. Ordinarily, the 27 kilometer-long collider is used as a kind of demolition derby for protons, hurling them into each other in a kind of very, very small version of Rollerball in the hopes that the resulting explosion will be provide scientists a glimpse into the underpinnings of the universe. It’s actually fascinating work, and the tunnels (nestled beneath the Swiss-French border) have virtually guaranteed that the next spate of the field’s discoveries will be firmly in European hands.
By comparison, the world’s second largest collider is the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FERMI) near Chicago, and that one is a mere 6.3 kilometers. Since everything’s bigger in Texas (including opposition to science in school textbooks) a proposed supercollider there was supposed to be 80 kilometers long, but it was canceled in 1993.
So, what was the result at CERN? The collision of lead ions has produced what scientists call the closest they’ve ever seen to the state of matter mere seconds after the Big Bang itself.
The hope is that eventually, a powerful enough collision will produced quark-gluon plasma which is far hotter than our own sun. Sort of an afterbirth of the early universe. Also on the wish-list is to find more data concerning dark matter, antimatter, strangelets, and an entire bestiary of hypothetical things.
I find it endlessly fascinating that a fragile, extraordinarily young species like ours is probing into the fundamental nature of the universe. This is arguably the passing of the torch from philosophy into science; where the pre-Socratic gang of thinkers in ancient Greece speculated on the nature of ultimate reality, from Anaximander to Thales, only a couple thousand years later we are actually putting our money (well, European money) where our mouths are.