Thursday, September 11, 2008

What is everything in the Universe made of?


Yeah, that pretty much sums it. But if you were like Democritos, the Greek philosopher of 300 BC, you'd want to know what exactly is this 'stuff' then?

Democritos figured that if you kept halving something, you'd eventually reach a point where that thing simply cannot halved anymore. He called this an 'atom'.

Today, we know this as a fact. Atoms really are what Democritos imagined it would be -- to a point. For someone who existed over two thousand years ago, I'd say he was waaaaay ahead of time then!

Since then, we have gone a few steps further and discovered that within atoms, there exists Protons, Neutrons and Electrons (halo, still remember your fizik or not?) -- collectively called sub-atomic particles.

These Protons and Neutrons are in turn made up of even tiner particles called Quarks.

Subatomic particles are so small, there is no way we are able to observe them through conventional means. And by 'conventional', that means even the most powerful scanning-tunneling electron miscropes that are able to look at individual atoms!

To describe the behaviour of subatomic particles, scientists resorted to building complex mathematical models that predict their (the particles, not the scientists!) lifespans and characteristics.

But if you really wanted to 'see' them, you'd need a super massive tool called a partical accelerator. You'd have probably read it in the news by now, regarding the CERN particle accelerator called the LHC, Large Hedron Colider?

The LHC (pix by:Fabrice Coffrini / AFP-Getty Images)

  • Its a tube, the shape and size of a gigantic doughnut 26 kilometers in circumference
  • The system is buried deep underground so it is shielded from solar radiation (which messes up the readings).
  • Around the tube, there are 9,000 super-conducting magnets that run at a super-cool temperature of minus 270c.
  • The machine consumes 120 mega watts of power.
  • There are between 7,000 to 10,000 scientists working on this machine.
  • It is located at the border of France and Switzerland -- what a lovely place to be!!

So what does it do?

  • It speeds up one stream of hidrogen atoms within this tube to nearly the speed of light in one direction.
  • It speeds up another stream to the same speed on a different path, but on the opposite direction.
  • Then it smashes these 2 streams together -- BOOM
In there to record the action, are massive detectors that are described as equal to a 150 megapixel camera (our high end consumer models shot 10 mega pixles) and at 600,000,000 frames per second! Say CHEESE!

These scientists then spend the next months and years theorising further on what they saw, or what they thought they saw... and whether any of the particles' collisions were caused by driving under influence.

The cost of this thing?

Estimates vary, but its been tagged at between 6 to 10 billion dollars.
Its being funded by Europeans, and in part, the Americans.
No Petronas money was being misused for this purpose (sorry, Malaysian-only inside joke here)

What do they hope to get out of this thing anyway?

The scientists hope to answer, prove or disprove 5 theories:
1) What happened milliseconds after the Big Bang?
2) Do Strings (as in String Theory) exist, and are there really 11 dimensions in the universe?
3) Is it universe or multiverse?
4) Find this 'dark matter', that's supposed to make up 96% of the universe.
5) Find this illusive thing called the 'Higgs Boson'... and hopefully find more than that even

No, really, what I mean is, what's in it for us?
Actually there was an initial fear that the machine may somehow create a micro blackhole. If that happens, some fear that it would wipe out our entire planet -- get sucked into something the size of a green pea or something.

The LHC went life today.... and chances are, if you're reading this, it means no blackhole was created. And if it did.... well, it wouldn't matter much anyway. Nothing matters much when you are sharing the space of a green pea with 6 billion other people and a planet! But that has a 1 in 50 million chance of happening!

But beyond satisfying the curiosity of several physicists, there is little of what will come out of this that will benefit the layman any time soon.

Who knows, the findings may open doors to new and more insightful views of our universe?
I guess I would... to a point. But beyond that, I'd focus my energies on the other kind of doughnut -- the delicious ones from Big Apple!

Interested to know more? Check out this excellent article from Wired magazine.

5 commented:

Anonymous said...

When I read about it few weeks back, it did strike me what better use that money could have gone to.

And then there was this book by Dan Brown (no not the Code), the earlier one, who fictionalize about the matter that could destroy earth that ended in the wrong hands. But that's fiction. Of course in the book everything ended happily ever after...

As for this, I suppose it's better than spending all that good money on another 2 nuclear sub.

sting said...

oh wow! in other words they did it for "fun"? but I guess a scientist gotto do what a scientist gotto do huh :-) and probably they have other motives that they are not releasing yet?

Center Parted said...

Yeah WLE, like when Einstein discovered E=MC2, the took that and made bombs out of that.

Hope this time around any discoveries can be used for advancement of the human species, and not to hasten its destruction!

Center Parted said...

Yeah, Sting, perhaps their secret agenda could be to make a better pizza oven!?!

Check this out:

Piet Simmons said...

I do appreciate the advanced technologies. However, I have one doubt in mind. Do we really need to know about the Big Bang or like?

Thanks for the post!