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Deep below the Alps, physicists seek to fill in the blanks of time and space

In scale and appearance, it can only be compared to a cathedral. The chambers that hold the particle detectors, the biggest of them built and maintained by Canadians, are indeed larger than most European

cathedrals, buried a hundred metres below the earth, charged with a city's worth of power and filled with an unholy light.

In its function, too, the Large Hadron Collider this morning will become something of a secular cathedral for the millions of people watching and the thousands of physicists on the site, which spans the Swiss-French border. Here, inside the largest science experiment ever conducted, is the stuff of meditation and prayer, mysteries of the sort that only religion and Big Science can unveil with such grandeur.

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Here, emerging from a tunnel at almost the speed of light as protons are brought to impossible speeds around a 27-kilometre track, are the answers to the origins of time, the laws of the universe, the history of all things, and the truth about what the empty spaces hold.

Last night, in the control room of the ATLAS Project, where hundreds of physicists hope to detect for the first time the basic particles that will answer their most profound questions, the talk alternated between mechanical troubles and high cosmology.

"This is what our entire careers have been building up to: It's the one chance in our generation to answer the biggest questions of science," said Christopher Potter, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University who helped build the devices that will, he hopes, detect the mysterious Higgs boson - a widely hypothesized but never detected particle - and other sub-sub-atomic elements whose existence would fill in the embarrassingly empty spaces in our knowledge of the nature of matter and the history of the universe.

As he and his colleagues monitored the computer banks, he began to explain his excitement about the possibility of finding a particle - he is betting his reputation on something called the charged Higgs - that will help to explain what it is that fills the universe (we still really don't know), and what happened at the moment time began, 14 billion years ago.

He was interrupted as a siren's wail filled the room, sounding strikingly like the one on the Starship Enterprise (a bit of physicist humour), warning that a subsection of the $9.5-billion project was acting up.

This was not the only alarm the project has set off. A string of lawsuits have been filed, in European and U.S. courts, calling for the collider to be shut down because the plaintiffs, some of them scientists, believe that the high-energy particle collisions will create black holes or other highly destructive forces that could destroy the Earth. Such lawsuits, not taken seriously by the wider scientific community, have accompanied the launch of almost every major atom-smashing project.

"Of course, we all hope that the Higgs particle will be detected, and that could happen very fast once this collider begins producing data, maybe even next year. But the amazing thing is that none of us really know what will be emitted, and it could well turn out to be something completely new that turns all our theories on their heads," said Swagato Banerjee of the University of Victoria, who is the ATLAS Project's 24-hour on-call expert on the high-speed computer programs used to filter the scientifically useful collisions from the less useful ones, 40 million times a second.

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Stephen Hawking, the physicist renowned for his work on the beginning of time, said last night he hoped that the collider would not find the Higgs boson - because that would make physics even more interesting. "I think it will be much more exciting if we don't find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again. I have a bet of $100 that we won't find the Higgs," he said on British TV.

Inside the control room, there was a mood of last-minute scramble last night, as delicate systems were tweaked by some of the world's most educated physicists - by one estimate, half the world's astrophysicists are directly involved with this project, and the rest seemed to have arrived over the weekend, piled into the Spartan accommodations that house scientists at CERN, the European research centre that launched this project.

Today they will watch, rapt, as a thin stream of hydrogen particles, stored in a canister no bigger than a fire extinguisher, is sent through a series of room-sized, block-sized and then field-sized particle accelerators over a period of seconds, until it is launched into an enormous 27-kilometre circular tunnel. There the particles will pass through a thick blue tube, surrounded by powerful superconducting magnets that are cooled with liquid helium, moving faster and faster, until it completes a circuit around the tunnel at a pace just under the speed of light.

If the particles complete their counterclockwise circuit around the track, the centre will then begin sending them in a clockwise direction. When that works, in perhaps a month's time, it will be time to begin sending particles both ways, until they collide with one another violently, 40 million times a second. The detectors will collect thousands of gigabytes of data every minute, to be stored on a vast array of computers.

At that point, the truly inspiring stuff will begin, as the patterns produced by the spewing particles begin to be analyzed by physicists around the world. "All we can do this week is calibrate our detectors and keep an open mind," said Hulya Guler, a young postdoctoral fellow with the University of Montreal and McGill, who arrived at the project last week. "The most important thing is to clear your mind so you don't expect anything in particular. You really have to be ready to see absolutely anything."

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