It's the world's biggest science experiment - and Canada is a part of it.
The secrets waiting to be unlocked inside the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-kilometre-long underground magnetic track near Geneva where atoms smash into each other to create huge amounts of energy, could be world-changing, scientists say. Textbooks will be rewritten as the universe is understood in a whole new light.
University of Alberta professor James Pinfold is heading the MoEDAL experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. His mission? With his team of 26 physicists from around the world, he'll seek out the hypothetical magnetic monopole - a single magnetic charge, or pole, that is predicted in the grand unified theory and string theory.
The particle physicist spoke with The Globe about the significance of the Large Hadron Collider and Canada's involvement.
Why is there such fanfare over the LHC, which started up today?
We have something that explains all physics as we know it today and it's called the Standard Model. The Standard Model predicts one particle that we haven't yet seen and that's the Higgs boson. So we want to try to discover the Higgs boson. And if the Standard Model is correct, we should see the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider, so it's a big discovery that's going to be made.
And you're on the hunt for monopoles in particular. Why is it important to locate them?
It will alter our fundamental understanding of nature. If we discover monopoles, we discover that magnetic charges come separately as well as electric charges. This will be an absolutely revolutionary thing for physics. It will be a fundamental change in our understanding and be an immensely important result.
How much energy do you need to run your experiment in the collider?
We're just starting out with seven [million million electronvolts]Tuesday and Wednesday. When we run at 14 million million electronvolts, we'll recreate the universe as it was in this little teeny region of the collision. We'll recreate the universe as it was just a million-millionth of a second after the Big Bang. So it's immense energies, but only in teeny, teeny regions, so it won't do a ton of damage.
What kind of damage? There are all kinds of fears that these experiments will put the world at risk.
The energy's so dense, it could trigger all kinds of things. It could trigger mini-black holes, it could trigger the vacuum decay - but let's not worry too much about that.
What would a mini-black hole look like?
It's a particle, you wouldn't even see it. What people are scared it could do is suck in matter and start to suck in the Earth and then destroy the Earth. But with a mini-black hole, this can't be done. Cosmic rays collide at much higher energies with the Earth than we could ever make, and they've never destroyed the Earth or the universe or anything at all.
Will these experiments and potential discoveries change our lives in any way?
It's a bit like the space race; when people landed on the moon, it didn't really impact our lives at all, though it was brilliant to see what humankind could do. I would always see the LHC not as the space race, but as the inner space race. It won't impact our lives, but in the future I think it will.
For example, the monopole, if we gathered enough of them, could create very strong materials that could be used in industrial activity. They could also make super-dense computer memories.
THE CRITICS: SCIENTISTS, THEOLOGIANS AND MORE
Some in the science community fear the energy created by the mammoth particle-smasher will create black holes that will consume the Earth and end humankind. Critics have asked scientists to cease work on the collider until a more thorough safety review can be completed, and challenges to the collider have been filed in U.S. Federal Court and the European Court of Human Rights. Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho filed suit in 2008, alleging that the collider could burp up something called a "strangelet" that would reduce the Earth to a shrunken ball of "strange matter," The New York Times reported. The suit also claims CERN has not provided an environmental impact statement as demanded under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act.
For some, recreating the environment around the Big Bang violates religious beliefs. Fundamentalist Christians, among others, reject the idea that a high-energy collection of atoms created the universe and believe God created it instead. And then there are those who thought the world would end when the collider started up and hurried to get in a few crucial life experiences before their impending death. Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that an Australian girl wanted to lose her virginity before it charged up for the first time temporarily in 2008 because she believed Armageddon would soon follow.
A SCIENTIFIC FIRST / THE NUTS AND BOLTS
Protons - produced by stripping electrons from hydrogen atoms - will smash together at four collision points, monitored by complex devices
THE ATLAS PROJECT
Canada has contributed $30-million and more than 150 scientists, mainly to the ATLAS project
STEP BY STEP
1. Particles injected in the smaller machines arrive at the Super Proton Synchrotron
2. Particles are transferred to the LHC, forming two beams travelling in opposite directions
3. Particles accelerated to near the speed of light and collide at four points where the two rings intersect
Data at the four collision points is analyzed
THE HIGGS BOSON
ATLAS will search for the elusive Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that is thought to give mass to all matter.
To account for the origin of mass, physicists are looking for proof of a hypothetical "Higgs field," which contains Higgs particles and permeates all of space. As particles travel through the viscous field, they experience various amounts of drag, which gives them mass.
Upon collision, particles curve depending on their charge
Clustering of field creates drag (mass)
THE GLOBE AND MAIL/THE CANADIAN PRESS/THE NEW YORK TIMES/GRAPHIC NEWS / SOURCES: CERN; ESRI; WWW.PARTICLEADVENTURE.ORG; AP