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Thursday, April 23, 2015

An Unfinished Journey - Sent in by Rohini (Senaratne) Anandaraja

Here I was,seated in a classroom in the "very feminine sounding but leading girls' school down a flowery avenue" (Lucky Abey quoted), totally oblivious to what the teacher was teaching, trying to divide a square into ever smaller halves, and finally concluding that this division could go on indefinitely but realizing there was no way of achieving this!

The day I learned that the smallest unit of all matter was the atom, I felt 'enlightened' and satisfied that the reason I couldn't get to the 'atom' in my square was because it was too small to see with my eyes!!  A while later, I was to learn that the atom contained smaller particles - the protons, the electrons and the neutrons, and since then - that these subatomic particles have yet smaller elementary or fundamental particles - the fermions, the bosons, consisting yet again of several types of quarks, leptons, gluons etc, each with their own properties and even colour charge.

And so it went on - until CERN (Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire) -The European Organization for Nuclear Research- commenced its operation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2008/2009, and in 2012 demonstrated the existence of the Higgs boson particle which gives mass to all other existing particles. The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded in 2013 to Peter Higgs from UK and Francois Englert from Belgium for this discovery.

The LHC is the largest physics experiment that ever existed - with the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator, situated in a tunnel 27 kilometers long, 27 kilometers in circumference, upto 175 meters underground in the Franco/Swiss border. It is designed to collide two counter rotating beams of protons close to the speed of light. Until 2012 ,it was operated at energy levels upto 3.5 to 4 TeV per beam (tera electron volts), and then it's operations were paused for an upgrade to prepare it for the currently planned operation at a higher energy level of 6.5 TeV per beam so it would yield more data.

The beams of protons move around  the LHC ring in an ultrahigh vacuum thinner than interplanetary space, guided by magnets maintained in a superconducting state at minus 271.3 degrees C (colder than outer space) by a closed Helium circuit. A number of accelerating structures boost the energy of the particles along the way until they reach a speed close to that of light before they collide - the aim being to create the conditions that immediately followed the Big Bang.
The collisions are made to occur at 4 locations around the accelerator ring, corresponding to positions of the particle detectors ATLAS, CMS, ALICE and LHCb - each of which gathers different data.

New discoveries expected to emerge from this experiment are said to be:
* confirmation of Higgs properties with greater precision, which may lead to new laws of physics
*explain why masses have such diversity in the building blocks of nature
*investigation of Dark matter which is considered to be 27 % of all matter in the universe - and could predict a host of new particles
 *information on Quark gluon plasma( a fluid form of matter that existed shortly after the Big Bang)which would give   more information of the early universe
*detection of mini black holes
* explain the imbalance between matter and antimatter in the universe at present.

As with any new project - there have been warnings and doomsday scenarios predicted as a result of this experiment by  various religious and other groups (reminiscent of the days of Galileo). However, CERN's LHC Safety Assessment Group has proclaimed that they take safety very seriously and that the collisions present no danger.

All this is fascinating. However, since those days in my classroom well over 3 score years ago, I have realized that the ultimate reality is unlikely ever to be known.

Further details and photos available from CERN, New Scientist, and many other websites accessible from Google .


  1. Rohini, I suspect you are a New Scientist subscriber like myself. I find reading its articles quite a tonic for my sagging neurones! This is from am April issue 2015.
    "THE beam is back. Last Sunday morning, a pulse of protons flew around the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, for the first time in two years.

    This is the first milestone in the rejuvenation of the world's largest particle collider. Upgraded magnets and electronics will enable it to smash protons together with 13 teraelectronvolts (TeV) of energy, double that of the old LHC.

    Physicists hope that the revamped collider will help find new physics beyond the standard model – the existing theory of particles and forces. The Higgs boson, discovered at the LHC in 2012, was the missing piece of this model, but the theory does not include a host of things that physicists know exist, such as dark matter and gravity.

    But first, the LHC needed to warm up. Sunday's beams circulated at a test energy of 0.45 TeV, about 7 per cent of the energy each beam would need to reach 13 TeV in a collision. CERN's head of beams, Paul Collier, says the team expects the first collisions between two bunches of protons to happen in June.

    "We have unfinished business with understanding the universe," says Tara Shears of the University of Liverpool, UK, who works on an experiment called LHCb. "We want to chase the hints we've seen in previous measurements, whose behaviour didn't quite match our expectations."

    1. Mahen
      Though Iam not a subscriber to 'New Scientist' I have my own private
      scientist! (my son) who is very much into particle physics,astrophysics and the like ,who keeps me updated with glimpses of a future only he can hope to see!
      Thanks for the New Scientist article.There is so much of very interesting reading regarding the LHC and specially how the Higgs boson gives mass to other particles which initially puzzled me -now accessible from google.
      I omitted detailed explanations in my article so it stayed uncomplicated and reader friendly.
      Enjoy the New Scientist and the findings when the LHC fires at full strength in May/ June Iam sure will be very interesting

  2. Rohini, it is great that your brain is so active (so is Speedy's) and that both of you can discuss all these new discoveries "over a cup of tea". Speedy's neurones may be sagging, but mine have died, and all this high brow stuff is too much for me at this age!!
    However, thanks for keeping our blog so active. Sriani

    1. Sriani
      I do not believe that your neurones 'have died' at all.
      I might have thought mine were dead too except for the fact that I have travelled on with my son as I wrote in my reply to Speedy.
      Laughter itself will keep your neurones firing at full force!
      Keep on Sriani

  3. Rohini
    Thank you for that interesting and illuminating insight into the “particles” and the wonderful world we live in. I cannot get my head round those complex and vexed issues, hence my interest in the mundane. Life, philosophy, physics and the universe are inextricably linked. In my own personal unfinished journey it is philosophy that makes me think of the cosmos, black holes and the Milky Way. The days of particle physics I learnt for Radiology have disappeared into the fog of time. It must be wonderful to maintain your interests in the atom and its component parts. No doubt when I listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata and appreciate the beauty of the night I will allow my thoughts to wander and think of Mahendra and Rohini and your love for the “particles” and the New Scientist.
    Thank you for keeping the Blog alive and introducing a brand new dimension.

  4. Rohini and everyone else,
    This is really "cool stuff." Thank you for your article Rohini. I sort of skimmed it but will read it again later. When my brain wraps around these things I suffer from brain fatigue, but nevertheless I love to read about such things. When I was younger (at that same school on the flowery avenue) I would try to understand infinity and the expanding universe and throw my brain into a dervish like spin! This brief note is to tell you all that I am alive and well and hope to participate more actively in the future. Bunter

  5. Nice to see you back Srianee. I hope your next contribution will be soon!

  6. Srianee
    So nice to hear from you - thanks for letting us know you'll be back soon.