An international team of scientists at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland made history this year when they announced that they had finally discovered proof of the elusive Higgs boson particle. The road that led to that discovery was a long, 25-year winding path from the Large Hadron Collider’s inception to its final construction, and then through a series of setbacks and equipment failures before the success that they had been hoping for. With the task of finding the Higgs completed, CERN scientists are wasting no time in getting their next project started, and it’s one that could dwarf the LHC in all sorts of ways.
You’d think that, having made one of the most expensive scientific instruments ever, CERN would be content to use it for a while, but now the Daily Mail reports that they are already devising its replacement. To do the next batch of groundbreaking experiments, a team of 18 scientists are considering several options, one of which is a particle accelerator that would stretch 50 miles long. It is hoped that the LHC’s replacement would help scientists finally crack the mystery of how gravity works on a molecular scale. This is no small task, as finding out more about gravity’s extremely weak force at small scales is central to the hopes of a grand unified theory, the holy grail of physics.
The proposed size upgrade itself is not unexpected. The bigger the particle accelerator, the tinier pieces the particles get smashed into and the more energy gets released, allowing physicists to see even more of the building blocks of the universe. If they could, physicists would make a particle accelerator big enough to circle the moon, so it’s understandable that CERN would want the upgrade if they could get it.
The 50-mile accelerator isn’t the only option on the table, though. Another option is to tear up the LHC and replace the existing track and equipment with far more sensitive equipment. This would still be a boost to their ability to detect particles, but not quite as significant as building a larger track would. Either way, the next step will cost CERN and its member states billions of dollars and take many years to complete.
It’s tempting to think that CERN is just riding high on their success and trying to milk their investors for more money while they can, but the fact is, any upgrade to their experiments will take a long time to see the light of day. The LHC took 25 years from proposal to the final build, and any new project won’t even be built until 2025. The team working on the future road map for CERN said they took the LHC’s construction time into account and want to get started on production as soon as possible to avoid any stalling of scientific progress.
There were a lot of unfounded fears about the LHC making planet-eating black holes when it went operational, so it kind of makes you wonder what everyone is going to fret about when they switch this thing on.