GENEVA — Deep beneath the Swiss-French border near Geneva, thousands of physicists are building the world's largest and most expensive science experiment — a particle collider that they hope will bring them one step closer toward unlocking some of the universe’s oldest secrets.
Meet the Large Hadron Collider.
It is a $4 billion instrument that scientists at the European Center of Nuclear Research, or CERN, hope to use to re-create the big bang — believed to be the event that caused the beginning of the universe — by crashing protons together at high speed.
Housed in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) circular tunnel several hundred feet beneath Switzerland and France, the LHC will operate at 456 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (-271 degrees Celsius), and collisions will occur 800 million times a second, the center says.
This week, scientists and workers lowered a magnet weighing 2,110 English tons — a weight equivalent to five jumbo jets — 328 feet (100 meters) below ground.
When they finally flip the switch on the LHC in November, the magnet and several others will help to drive two streams of protons in opposite directions around the ring at close to the speed of light.
Upon collision, the beams are expected to create many new particles and possibly a reconstruction of the universe in its very first moments.
“It’s detective work to sift through all [the destroyed remains],” says Francois Grey at CERN’s Information Department.
But if the experiment is successful, all that work could explain the origins of mass.
Origins of the universe
Particle physicists believe the Big Bang was a huge explosion of energy that took place roughly 13 billion years ago, generating the matter that makes up humans, animals, plants, stars, galaxies — in short, the universe as we know it.
But they still have niggling questions, including the deceptively simple riddle of why matter actually has mass. “Cosmologists can’t understand or measure the size of the universe,” says Grey. “It’s the missing mass problem.”
“What's new and exciting to us is if we can try to understand basically our model of the universe, try to understand the building blocks of what we're made up of,” said Steven Goldfarb, a research scientist from the University of Michigan.
Goldfarb is one of 2,000 scientists around the world involved in the design, construction and execution of the CERN project. He has been helping to oversee the installation of Atlas, a detector that runs 148 feet (45 meters) long and rises 82 feet (25 meters) high. Atlas is one of four detectors built along the tunnel ring that will capture information generated by the LHC.
In fact, CERN says the collider will produce data at a rate equivalent to 5 million DVDs a year.
In order to decipher that information, scientists will need unparalleled supercomputing power. To that end, CERN has come up with a revolutionary data processing system called grid computing, which will send chunks of data to different computers in a global network linked through high-speed connections.
“We need 50,000 PCs-worth of processing power,” says Grey. “Data will be stored in dozens of centers and many labs will be involved in the processing.”
It is a daunting task, but perhaps not for scientists at CERN, where Tim Berners-Lee developed the concept for the World Wide Web.
Grey says the LHC’s Data Computing Grid system could have commercial spinoffs in the fields of medical data or climate change analysis.
‘In a way it’s biblical’
With this CERN project, physicists hope to cross a new frontier of knowledge by resolving questions of science. One, in particular, is pinpointing the elusive Higgs boson, a key “building block” particle that can help explain why all other particles have mass.
The other is dark matter. “We know [dark matter] exists by secondary methods,” says Peter Limon, a particle physicist from Fermilab, near Chicago. But “we don't know what it is. It's strange stuff. We know it's not regular matter in the sense of protons and neutrons and things like that.”
Enthusiasts have called the scale of the project unprecedented and even "biblical."
“In a way it's biblical,” says Limon. “I'd like to think that this curiosity, this need to know is … if you're not a religious person … the soul of human beings, the thing that makes us different from dogs and cats. Even though dogs and cats are wonderful.”
Adrienne Mong is based in NBC News' London bureau.