rolf-dieter heuer, lhc, rolf-dieter heuer lhc, rolf dieter heuer large hadron collider
AP Photo/Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi
Director General of CERN
Rolf-Dieter Heuer informs journalists about restarting the LHC at
CERN, during a press conference at the Geneva Press Club, March 8, 2010.

CERN Researchers Set Sights on Dark Matter

March 09, 2010 03:30 PM
by James Sullivan
With the Large Hadron Collider once again operational, researchers and cautiously optimistic observers look toward future discoveries, hoping for insight into the origins of the universe.

LHC Enters New Phase

Yesterday at a press conference in Geneva, Director General of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Rolf-Dieter Heuer discussed the reopening of the facility, and addressed short- and long-term research goals and expectations.

Although the LHC has not yet led to any discoveries, Heuer believes that a major breakthrough in our understanding of dark matter could come later this year.

After a 2 1/2 month break for technical rehabilitation, the LHC once again began circulating particle beams on Feb. 28. CERN researchers plan to conduct high-energy collisions at the end of March. Last year the LHC set a world record for the highest energy ever recorded for an earthbound particle accelerator. If the LHC hits its goal of operating at half-power later this month, its beams will carry three times the energy of those from the previous record.

The collider is set to operate at an energy level of 7 trillion electron volts (TeV) until 2012, when it is due for upgrades to its energy design. It will reopen in 2013 operating at 14 TeV, “with a long-term goal of revealing the Higgs boson, or ‘God particle,’” according to the Associated Press.

What Is Dark Matter?

Heuer explained that scientists have been able to describe the physical underpinnings of the visual world using a standard model. The problem with the model, however, is that it only explains 5 percent of the universe.

Dark matter is an as-yet undiscovered form of matter theorized by scientists to explain certain phenomena in the universe such as “missing mass and strangely bent light in faraway galaxies,” the Associated Press reports. It cannot be observed using telescopes or similar instruments, but is widely accepted to exist among members of the scientific community.

The other 70 percent of the universe is composed of “dark energy,” a mysterious substance associated with the expansion of the universe.

Learn more about dark energy and dark matter at the NASA Astrophysics Web site.

Background: The Large Hadron Collider

The LHC is an underground complex made up of several large cathedral-sized buildings housing high-powered magnets. The magnets, which will be cooled to within two degrees Kelvin of absolute zero, shoot protons at 99.99-percent of the speed of light through a 17-mile circular tunnel lined with computers that will detect and analyze each particle collision.

There are several structures built along the tunnel that perform specific calculations, the most significant of which are A Large Ion Collider Experiment (ALICE), A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS (ATLAS) and Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS). ALICE will examine the quark–gluon plasma that existed after the Big Bang, while ATLAS and CMS will try to detect dark matter, extra dimensions and the Higgs boson.

Opinion & Analysis: What will scientists find?

There are many long-standing questions of particle physics that scientists at CERN hope to answer with the LHC, including those dealing with antimatter, extra dimensions and black holes.

The most-anticipated possible discovery is the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle that explains how mass is formed. The so-called “God Particle” was first theorized more than 40 years ago, National Geographic reports, and is considered the missing link of the Standard Model.

Dr. Stephen Hawking has doubts that the LHC will detect the Higgs—he’s made a $100 bet on it—but he does believe that the collider is “vital if the human race is not to stultify, and eventually die out.” According to the BBC, he anticipates that it can discover “supersymmetric partners” to known particles, which “would be a key confirmation of string theory, and … could make up the mysterious dark matter that holds galaxies together.”

Though scientists have different opinions on what the LHC will find, they agree that there will be major discoveries made. “More than anything, we have a good sense that we have to see something,” Perimeter Institute physicist Cliff Burgess told CBC News. “It's not like we're looking and hoping to see something; seeing nothing is really not an option.”

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