In a flurry of anticipation, scientists activated the Large Hadron Collider — the world’s most powerful particle collider — early Wednesday morning.
Among those on the edge of their seats were the 23 University scientists and researchers and more than 50 University undergraduate students who contributed to the development of the collider.
University scientists and students make up the largest delegation from any United States institution to contribute to ATLAS, a 6-story-high particle detector that is one of four main components of the collider.
Sometime next month, the collider will smash beams of protons together to simulate the moments after the Big Bang, providing clues to what happened at the earliest moments of the universe.
At $10 billion, the collider is the most expensive science experiment in history.
The LHC is operated by CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research — and is buried 300 feet below the Swiss-French border. CERN scientists first tested the waters on Wednesday by sending a few proton beams at a slower-than-capacity pace.
Scientists reported that the first beam had been steered around the 17-mile track on Wednesday at 4:28 a.m., Eastern Time.
University scientists helped develop a muon spectrometer — a machine that looks for the presence of the mysterious Higgs boson, a particle whose existence scientists hope to prove using the collider. Because the Higgs boson changes its particle state almost instantaneously, it is very difficult to detect.
The Higgs boson is nicknamed the “God Particle,” because scientists believe it’s what gives other particles their mass.
Rackham student Andrew Eppig, who is in Europe working at the CERN lab, said while excitement is high, physicists didn’t waste any time getting to work.
“Once the first beam went through, we were already collecting data,” he said.
Eppig watched the beam from one of the CERN cafeterias on a big-screen display. The displays were scattered throughout the building and lit up each time the beam hit one of eight markers in the loop.
“Some people were in the control room, but everyone was just waiting,” he said. “There was excitement, but there was also, ‘Alright, what happened? Did everything work in our experiment?’”
Scientists hope the colliders will provide answers to some unknowns of the universe, like dark matter and dark energy. Both account for much of the mass in the universe, but remain a mystery.
“We’re looking deeper into matter than ever before,” said University Physics Prof. Daniel Levin, who works on the University’s ATLAS team.
University scientists will spend the coming weeks fine-tuning the millions of individual parts that make up the muon spectrometer, Levin said.
Once the collision occurs, scientists will spend about a year analyzing the data before results are finalized, Eppig said.
“We don’t really know what’s going to happen, so it’s pretty exciting,” he said.