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Sunday 17 December 2017

Hadron Collider to be closed amid fears of a very big bang

The world's most expensive scientific experiment which is designed to recreate the dawn of creation will be switched off for a year over fears it could break it apart.

Scientists in charge of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva announced yesterday that the machine will only be able to run on half energy before it is temporarily shut down in two years' time.

Its full operating capacity designed to probe the frontiers of science will not be achieved until at least 2013.

In 2008, the €2.8bn atom-smasher on the Franco-Swiss border, had to be shut down just days after it was switched on for the first time because of an electrical fault.

Helium gas was released into the machine's underground tunnel.

The fault took €27m to fix but the European Centre for Nuclear Research's engineers found that further work was needed before the machine could use full energy.

"Some of the copper stabilisers are not up to the quality needed to go to the full energy level," said Steve Myers, director of accelerators and technology at Cern.

As a compromise to the particle physicists eager to begin work on the fundamental forces of nature at the heart of the atomic nucleus, the Cern authorities decided to run the machine on half energy for the next two years.



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However, the revelation that the problems at the LHC are going to delay its full potential for several more years is unlikely to soothe the growing discontent among scientists in other disciplines who feel that "big physics" gets more than its fair share of funding.

Even nuclear physicists are beginning to feel envious of the funding given to their colleagues in what is one of the most ambitious science experiments. Its aim is to collide two beams of subatomic protons circulating in opposite directions at 99.9999991 per cent of the speed of light.

By crashing the beams together at such high energy levels, scientists hope to break apart the sub-atomic constituents of matter and recreate the conditions that occurred less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang some 13.7bn years ago.

However, the engineering difficulties involved in the experiment are uniquely difficult.

The 27km tunnel that houses the atom smasher had to be so precisely aligned that it was no greater than one tenth of a millimetre out and the giant, superconducting magnets that accelerate the proton beams have to be held together with a force that can resist 500 tonnes per square metre, equivalent to one full-throttle jumbo jet pushing on each square metre.

Within the next few weeks, each beam of the LHC is scheduled to run at a lower power and when they collide the results are expected to be high enough to produce findings that could open new avenues, such as the possible discovery of supersymmetry -- subatomic particles thought to be created at the beginning of the universe but have never been seen.

At these energy levels it might also be possible to find the elusive Higgs boson, or "God particle", which could explain why matter has mass and hence lead to a greater understanding of the force of gravity, which operates over the vast distances of space.

hnews@herald.ie

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