Take that, Fermilab! This seems to be the underlying message of yesterday's BBC News article announcing that CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland has smashed the record for most particle collisions, doubling the previous rate to reach about 10,000 particle collisions per second. More collisions means that many more opportunities to observe interesting new physics. And while Fermilab still holds the record for highest beam intensity at its Tevatron collider, the LHC's collision rate leaves the poor aging machine in the dust. Boo-yah!
SLIDE SHOW: Top 5 Misconceptions About the Large Hadron Collider.
Maybe it's payback for all the news Fermilab has been generating over the last month or so, including the possibility of not one, but five different Higgs bosons. The two facilities have a friendly scientific rivalry going, to be sure, and let's face it: the Tevatron would dearly love to beat the LHC to the Higgs, just to prove that size isn't everything.
"It's clear that the LHC is the new boy in town, but in two years running we're going to put Fermilab out of business," the article quotes operation group leader Mike Lamont as boasting. (And who knew the LHC was male?) Sounds like a throw-down to me. And clearly, the clock is ticking.
So how did the LHC achieve this momentous milestone, when it's still running at roughly half its capability, in terms of sheer energy? It jacked up its proton beams, that's how! Since the machine recorded its first true collisions in November 2009, scientists have been slowly increasing the number of "bunches" of proton particles in each beam -- the bunch intensity, which is critical to increasing collision rates.
Each bunch can contain up to 100 billion protons. Last week, the LHC scientists smashed together two beams of three bunches each, thereby achieving record "luminosity" (the number of protons colliding per second). The ultimate goal is to reach 2808 bunches per beam -- and the current target date for that is 2016.
The always-colorful John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN, supplied one of the most memorable quotes to BBC News: "Protons are complicated particles, they've got quarks [and other small particles], and colliding them is like colliding two garbage cans and watching carrots come out," he said. "The more collisions we get, the closer we get to supersymmetry, dark matter, the Higgs boson, and other types of new physics." And oh yes, as luminosity (number of collisions) continues to increase, so does the likelihood of the machine producing mini-black holes... fortunately of the variety that will instantly evaporate due to Hawking radiation.
Perhaps we should be more concerned about those high-intensity proton beams. CERN has been stepping up the bunch intensity very gradually because it's critical that the beams remain stable, otherwise they could (and I quote Lamont) "melt a hole in the vacuum pipe, cause a vacuum leak into the magnet and helium leak into the vacuum pipe," which would take six months or more to repair. (A helium leak occurred in 2008 shortly after the LHC turned on and put the accelerator out of commission for fourteen months.)
Lamont compared the energy and potential damage to "a British aircraft carrier going at 12 knots" and hitting the Mont Blanc Bridge: "It would be a real wreck, but it would not destroy half of Geneva." I'm guessing it may be awhile before Lamont gets to chat with reporters again about LHC safety issues. Because that might not be a universe-destroying catastrophe, but it's certainly destruction on a par with anything inflicted by the Incredible Hulk.