'The most exciting time in physics in my entire professional career'

'The most exciting time in physics in my entire professional career' »Play Video
A scientist celebrates with champagne in the SMS experiment control room at their headquarter outside Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, March 30, 2010.

EUGENE, Ore. -- The world's largest atom smasher crashed together two minuscule particles racing at unheard of speeds in conditions simulating those just after the Big Bang - a success that kick-started a megabillion-dollar experiment that could one day explain how the universe began.
 

Scientists cheered Tuesday's historic crash of two proton beams, which produced three times more energy than researchers had created before and marked a milestone for the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider.
 
Among those cheering was David Strom, a physics professor at the University of Oregon. Strom is just back from a visit to Hadron last week. He is working on a Hadron experiment called ATLAS, which involves sifting through enormous reams of data for collisions warranting further study.
 
"This is the most exciting time in physics in my entire professional career," Strom said.

Strom said the data could hold clues for understanding dark matter, which Strom describes as the "seed of the galaxy." He said scientists know dark matter exists, but don't know its properties. He said he's hoping the Hadron collisions provide more insight.

"You have a hundred theorists and they have a hundred ideas and we don't know who's right. We think this machine is going to tell us that many of the theorists are wrong and maybe some of them are right," he said.

Other UO scientists involved in the research include Jim Brau, a particle physicist, and Jacob Searchy, a graduate student who is in Geneva currently.

Tuesday's smashup transforms the 15-year-old collider from an engineering project in test phase to the world's largest ongoing experiment, experts say. The crash that occurred on a subatomic scale is more about shaping our understanding of how the universe was created than immediate improvements to technology in our daily
lives.
     
The power produced will ramp up even more in the future as scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, watch for elusive particles that have been more theorized than seen on Earth.
     
The consequences of finding those mysterious particles could "affect our conception of who we are in the universe," said Michio Kaku, co-founder of string field theory and author of the book "Physics of the Impossible."
     
Physicists, usually prone to caution and nuance, tripped over themselves in superlatives praising the importance of the Large
Hadron Collider and the significance of its generating regular science experiments.
     
"This is the Jurassic Park for particle physicists," said Phil Schewe, a spokesman for the American Institute of Physics. He called the collider a time machine. "Some of the particles they are making now or are about to make haven't been around for 14 billion years."

The first step in simulating the moments after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago was to produce a tiny bang. The most potent force on the tiny atomic level that man has ever created came Tuesday.

Two beams of protons were sent hurtling in opposite directions toward each other in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) tunnel below the Swiss-French border - the coldest place in the universe at slightly above absolute zero. CERN used powerful superconducting magnets to force the two beams to cross; two of the protons collided, producing 7 trillion electron volts.
     
It's bizarrely both a record high and a small amount of energy.

It's a record on the atom-by-atom basis that physicists use to measure pure energy, Schewe said. By comparison, burning wood or any other chemical reaction on an atom scale produces one electron volt. Splitting a single uranium atom in a nuclear reaction produces 1 million electron volts. This produces - on an atom-by-atom scale - 7 million times more power than a single atom in a nuclear reaction, Schewe said.
     
The reason this is safe has to do with the amount of particles in the collider. Tuesday's success involved just two protons making energy, instead of pounds of uranium, Schewe said.
     
Kaku, a professor at City College of New York, described the amount of energy produced as less than the total energy made by two mosquitoes crashing.
     
The successful collision was viewed by scientists watching monitors, who cheered the results.
     
"That's it! They've had a collision," said Oliver Buchmueller
of Imperial College in London.
     
Across the world at the California Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, researchers and students watched reports from Switzerland.
     
"It marks the beginning of a new era of exploration in a new range of energy," said physics professor Harvey Newman.
     
"Experiments are collecting their first physics data - historic moment here!" a scientist tweeted on CERN's official Twitter account.
     
"Nature does it all the time with cosmic rays (and with higher energy), but this is the first time this is done in Laboratory!" said another tweet.