Our understanding of the universe and the nature of reality itself has drastically changed over the last 100 years, and it’s on the verge of another seismic shift. In a 17-mile-long tunnel buried 570 feet beneath the Franco-Swiss border, the world’s largest and most powerful atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, is powering up. Its goal is nothing less than recreating the first instants of creation, when the universe was unimaginably hot and long-extinct forms of matter sizzled and cooled into stars, planets, and ultimately, us. These incredibly small and exotic particles hold the keys to the greatest mysteries of the universe. What we find could validate our long-held theories about how the world works and what we are made of. Or, all of our notions about the essence of what is real will fall apart.
What Are We Made Of?
By Jonathan Atteberry, HowStuffWorks.com
Protons, Neutrons and Electrons Only Part of the Picture
What are we made of? The question has rankled scientists and philosophers for millennia, and even with the amazing progress made in fields like particle physics and astronomy, we are left with only a partial answer. We know, of course, that the visible world is composed of protons, neutrons and electrons that combine to form atoms of different elements, and we know those elements are the building blocks of the planets and stars that give rise to solar systems and galaxies.
What we didn’t know until very recently, however, is that those protons, neutrons and electrons appear to form less than 5 percent of the universe, and questions remain about how these building blocks arose. If regular matter represents only a small slice of the universe, what is the rest of the universe made of?
Such questions prompted the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) beneath the border between France and Switzerland. As the world’s largest particle accelerator, experts designed the LHC to recreate conditions that occurred shortly after the very foundation of universe itself. Here are a few of the mysteries scientists hope the LHC and other particle accelerators can shed light on.
According to NASA, more than 95 percent of the universe actually exists in the form of dark matter and dark energy which, inconveniently, is very difficult to observe. If dark matter and dark energy are so difficult to find, how do we know they even exist? The wind offers a simple analogy; you can’t see it, but you can observe its effect on the world around you. In this case, dark matter and dark energy are necessary to explain the gravitational pull and density of the universe, among other things.
Different theories explain what dark matter is actually made of, and many of them state that most dark matter can’t be composed of the same protons, neutrons and electrons that form regular matter. For instance, one theory states that dark matter is made up of the lightest of a group of particles known as supersymmetrical particles. So far, supersymmetrical particles haven’t been proven to exist, but scientists hope the Atlas and CMS experiments at the LHC will detect them and bring us closer to understanding dark matter’s composition.
For every particle of matter, there’s a particle of antimatter — or at least there should be. Indeed, when antimatter, which is an oppositely charged version of matter, has been created in laboratories, the equivalent amount of matter was also created. What’s more, when matter and antimatter meet one another, they annihilate each other and become energy. And yet we live in a universe filled with matter, leaving scientists to wonder what happened to all of the antimatter that should, in theory, have been created at the beginning of the universe. Recreating those same conditions at the LHC, scientists hope to discover why everything around us is made of matter rather than antimatter and, furthermore, exactly why there appears to be so little antimatter remaining in the universe.
We take it for granted that matter has mass, but some scientists think this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the predominant model used to explain the forces and substance of the universe, known as the Standard Model, predicts that particles had no mass at all shortly after the creation of the universe. Scientists theorize those particles gained their mass only later, when they were exposed to the Higgs boson field and interacted with a particle known as the Higgs boson. The more matter interacted with the Higgs boson, the greater its mass became. The Higgs boson has never been observed, however, so the search continues at the LHC and elsewhere. To look for the elusive particle, scientists must smash particles into one another at extremely high speeds. Among the smaller, less stable particles that result from this process, scientists hope they will eventually find traces of a Higgs boson.
Answers From the Large Hadron Collider
It seems every new discovery in the world of particle physics gives rise to a host of new questions. The LHC is designed specifically to answer some of those questions. Because the LHC is able to generate higher amounts of energy from its collisions than any other particle accelerator on the planet, it can effectively recreate some of the very earliest moments in the universe, when matter as we know it didn’t exist. Better yet, the LHC hasn’t begun to operate at its full potential, meaning we’ve only begun to see what sorts of things it’s capable of. And with each new discovery gained from the LHC, scientists will be able to validate some theories and discard others, inching us ever closer to truly understanding what we are made of.
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