Thursday, May 21, 2015

Smashing atoms at the LHC

Our next stop in Geneva was a visit to CERN, where we learned more about the world's largest man-made experiment and the origins of our universe.
Finally we got to visit the scientific epicenter of the world, which is CERN. This is the home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest particle accelerator.

The accelerator is used to accelerate atoms to speeds close to the speed of light and smash them together. Approximately one petabyte of data is collected every year, which is equal to 1,000,000 gigabytes (aka about 268,000 HD episodes of "Game of Thrones," or the entire Netflix library two and a half times over).

Scientists from all over the world, including the University of Minnesota, analyze this data to gain new insights into particle physics and the origins of our universe.

Before we began the tour, we were given a brief lecture on particle physics and the history of computing technology to catch us up to speed. After taking Physics 1301 and 1302, this was a piece of cake!

We learned about the Higgs boson, quarks, and hypotheses waiting to be proven using the LHC. Previous breakthroughs using the LHC have led to advances in aviation, medicine, communications, and other fields.

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After the class, we got to walk through low security level areas of the facility. We didn't get to see the actual LHC because it requires a high security clearance. One of the physicists who has worked there for seven years has never even seen the LHC. But we did get to see a low energy particle accelerator.

During the tour, there were many radiation warning signs, and the tour guide kept track of how much radiation we were exposed to. Thankfully, by the end we were only exposed to sub-carcinogenic levels of radiation.

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The LHC has never been tested at 100 percent power, but next week will be the first time ever. The scientists aim to discover a new particle, or they might create a black hole. (Hopefully, they do the first one!)

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