Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Page 7



Making the Case for Dark Matter Research




In the historic month of September 2008, scientists began leading the human race to an epochal new understanding of the very nature of our world. With the opening of the large Hadron Collector, a 17-mile-long tunnel lying 330 feet under the ground on the French-Swiss border, scientists now have the means to develop a much deeper understanding regarding the nature of the beginnings of our universe — otherwise known as the “Big Bang Theory.”

Since Einstein’s time, we have had a consensus in our understanding of the nature of the world in which we live. Einstein gave us E=MC2. What he meant by this now-famous equation is that matter and energy are really different forms of the same thing. Matter can be turned into energy and energy into matter (sort of like ice can be turned into water and vice versa).

The Hadron Collector will allow us to gain a better understand of the NATURE of mass and energy. Beyond that, we might also discover the existence and nature of “dark matter.”

Dark matter is a mysterious substance that scientists think accounts for most of the mass in the universe; however, it is invisible to current instruments. Astronomers have known for more than 70 years that the matter we cannot see constitutes all the matter in the universe. If it didn’t, galaxies would fly apart.

Recent calculations indicate that ordinary matter containing atoms makes up only 4 percent of the energy-matter content of the universe. “Dark energy” makes up 73 percent, and an unknown form of dark matter makes up the last 23 percent. We are ignorant of the nature and influence of dark matter, and some are not even sure that it exists at all.

The Hadron Collector was built to help us prove that dark matter really does exist. It is designed to accelerate subatomic particles known as protons and smash them together in search of new particles, forces and dimensions.

Everything about the Collector is large — from the 14 trillion electron volts of energy with which it will smash the protons together — and the $8 billion it cost to build — to the 128 tons of liquid helium needed to cool the superconducting magnets that keep the particles whizzing around their track and the three million DVDs worth of data it will produce every year.

At full power, trillions of protons will race around the accelerator ring at 11,245 times a second in opposite directions — traveling at 99.99 percent the speed of light and creating 600 million collisions every second. Scientists say that making electrons collide in this manner will produce dark matter in one form or another.

The initial success of threading protons both clockwise and anticlockwise through the Collector on Sept 10 was met by cheers and champagne before an estimated television audience of one billion, making it the highest profile event in the history of physics.

Various mishaps, including the failure of a 30-ton electrical transformer, have slowed progress since then. The knockout blow came on September 19, when one of the giant super-conducting magnets that guide the protons failed during a test. It will be repaired, and efforts to get the Hadron Collector up and running again will commence in the spring of 2009.

What’s behind all of this effort? When fully operational, the Hadron Collector will force protons to collide, producing tiny fireballs of primordial energy and recreating conditions that last prevailed when the universe was less than one trillionth of a second old. By studying debris from the collisions, scientists hope to find clues to the universe’s fundamental mysteries: Why is there mass? What is dark matter? Why is the universe expanding at a confounding rate?

The advent of the Hadron Collector in Europe cements a shift in the balance of physics power away from American dominance, which began in 1993 when Congress canceled the Super-conducting Supercollider, a monster machine under construction in Waxahachie, Tex. That supercollider, the most powerful ever envisioned, would have sped protons around a 54-mile racetrack before slamming them together with 40 trillion electron volts. The cost of completing this collider approached $11 billion. It is said that U.S. leadership in particle physics has never recovered from this congressional “no.”

For decades, physicists in the United States and Europe have leapfrogged one another with bigger, more expensive and, inevitably, fewer collider machines. The more energy these machines can pack into their little fireballs, the farther back in time they can go — closer and closer to the Big Bang — and the smaller and smaller things they can see.

Now the center of high particle physics has moved to Europe. The U.S. has joined in this effort. Under its agreement with CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), the U.S. has contributed $531 million of accelerator components and particle detectors for the Hadron Collector.

Researchers from Brook-haven, Fermi, and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories and additional collaborators from 49 U.S. institutions are all participating in the European collider project. In all, more than 1,500 physicists, graduate students, engineers, technicians and computer scientists are working on it. They come from institutions in 30 states and Puerto Rico.

The payoff for this investment, physicists say, could be a new understanding of one of the most fundamental aspects of reality — namely the nature of mass.

Why should we care?

High particle physics is a way of understanding and thinking about the natural and physical world. Understanding its implications enables us to benefit from scientific knowledge.

As a scientific endeavor, it is a process for producing knowledge. The importance of physics and science in general to our daily lives is great: choosing to consume organic or genetically-modified foods; choosing products with the least impact on the environment; choosing an energy provider; making informed health care decisions.

We make science-based choices every day.


— Capitol News Service