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University of Mississippi

Physicists Thrilled About Activation of World’s Largest Particle Accelerator in Switzerland

As a physicist, James Reidy has been working toward this day for nearly 20 years – the day when scientists send the first beam of protons zooming at nearly the speed of light around the 17-mile-diameter  Large Hadron Collider, buried 300 feet beneath the Swiss countryside near Geneva. 

That special moment will come at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday (Sept. 10), an event that is to be webcast live. Suffice to say Reidy is very excited.  “The LHC is one of the most complicated machines ever built – a tremendous technical accomplishment,” said Reidy, one of several University of Mississippi physicists on the project. “So it’s very exciting, not just for our field or for science, but for humanity. This is a tremendous human endeavor that could really change the way we think of the universe.”

Members of the UM High-Energy Physics Group are among the 1,700 scientists, engineers, students and technicians who helped design and build the LHC, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. A project more than 20 years in the making, the LHC is located at the laboratories of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN.

The UM group worked with 155 other universities and laboratories from 80 countries on the LHC, which is also supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and the National Science Foundation.

The first circulating beam is a major accomplishment on the way to the ultimate goal: high-energy beams colliding in the centers of the LHC’s particle detectors. The scientists participating in these experiments will analyze these collisions in search of extraordinary discoveries about the nature of the physical universe.

“For several decades, we’ve been looking for physics that go beyond our standard model,” said Robert Kroeger, UM professor of physics and astronomy. “Basically, with this accelerator, we’re essentially guaranteed to find something beyond the standard model of physics. It’s a tremendous breakthrough.”

Celebrations across the U.S. and around the world mark the LHC’s first circulating beam. CERN is hosting a live webcast, which is how Kroeger expects to participate. Meanwhile, Reidy plans to watch the first beam at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory near Chicago. Fermilab has a virtual control room where researchers can watch the event unfold as if they were at CERN’s lab in Switzerland.

The LHC activation is a tremendous accomplishment, but the real good stuff is still a few years away, Reidy said.

“It’ll take two or three years to analyze the data,” he said. “We only know about maybe 4 percent of how the universe is put together – our planet, the stars, and so on. The other 96 percent we know absolutely nothing about. So we’ll be able to confirm some things we already know, but we also know new things will come out of this that we haven’t even imagined yet.

“We’re just not smart enough to think of everything.”

To watch the live webcast, set your alarm clock for 1 a.m. and go to visit http://lhc-first-beam.web.cern.ch/lhc-first-beam/Welcome.html . For more on high-energy physics research at UM, go to https://www.olemiss.edu/depts/physics_and_astronomy/research/hep.html .