Tuesday, February 16, 2010
What is the largest machine in the world?
It is the Large Hadron Collider, (left: blogger's guess of what it might look like.... but probably not. May not be to scale) built to unlock the deepest secrets of the universe. (Of all the stars and sky we see-- millions of light years into space-- we see less than 4% of the universe's total mass.) This machine, built 300-feet underground near the Swiss/French border, is basically a connected 17 mile circular tunnel. It contains two large tubes lined with powerful magnets and is helium-cooled to near absolute zero. It's sole purpose is to slam two infinitely tiny particles the size of the center of an atom (and yes, they are way too small to inscribe the Lord's Prayer on. You are, no doubt, thinking of the head of a pin) into each other at almost 186,000 miles per second. (This translates to going around the 17 mile loop 11,000 times per second.)
The cost is modest-- but only if you compare it to all the money in the world-- $10 billion. It's purpose is to try to recreate the Big Bang that scientists believe made our universe happen a mere 13.7 billion years ago. This is so sci-fi-incredible that some physicists say, if we are wrong in our calculations, this could trigger the destruction of earth. But enough of this happy talk.
Some impressive work has already been done by an atom-smasher in the U.S. The pipsqueak 2.4-mile-wide Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in Brookhaven, NY has smashed two super cooled, high-speed atoms into each other to create a temperatures of 7.2 trillion degrees-- 250,000 times hotter than the sun's core.
But really, how hot is 7.2 trillion degrees? Well, the human body is 98.6 degrees; iron's melting point is 2,800 degrees; the Sun's core is 27 million degrees; a supernova is 180 billion degrees; one microsecond after the Big Bang, 7.2 trillion degrees; one millionth of a microsecond after the big bang, 18,000 trillion-trillion degrees. I just can't imagine how long it would take to toast a marshmallow, but if you are an impatient sort, your s'mores are ready when you are.
Remember physicists, plenty of sun tan lotion... and wear those shades. (Seriously, pretty mind-boggling. Right?)