What are colliders for, anyway?

Above is a thoroughly famous photo from ATLAS, one of six different particle detectors that sit around the ring of the Large Hadron Collider (or LHC for short). Forming a 26 kilometer ring spanning a chunk of southern France and Switzerland, the LHC is the biggest experiment of its kind, with the machine alone costing around 4 billion dollars.

But what is “its kind”? And why does it need to be so huge?

Aesthetics, clearly.

Explaining what a particle collider like the LHC does is actually fairly simple, if you’re prepared for some rather extreme mental images: using incredibly strong magnetic fields, the LHC accelerates protons until they’re moving at 99.9999991% of the speed of light, then lets them smash into each other in the middle of sophisticated detectors designed to observe and track everything that comes out of the collision.

That’s all well and awesome, but why do the protons need to be moving so fast? Are they really really hard to crack open, or something?

This gets at a common misunderstanding of particle physics, which I’d like to correct here.

When most people imagine what a particle collider does, they picture it smashing particles together like hollow shells, revealing the smaller particles trapped inside. You may have even heard particle colliders referred to as “atom smashers”, and if you’re used to hearing about scientists “splitting the atom”, this all makes sense: with lots of energy, atoms can be broken apart into protons and neutrons, which is what they are made of. Protons are made of quarks, and quarks were discovered using particle colliders, so the story seems to check out, right?

The thing is, lots of things have been discovered using particle colliders that definitely aren’t part of protons and neutrons. Relatives of the electron like muons and tau particles, new varieties of neutrinos, heavier quarks…pretty much the only particles that are part of protons or neutrons are the three lightest quarks (and that’s leaving aside the fact that what is or is not “part of” a proton is a complicated question in its own right).

So where do the extra particles come from? How do you crash two protons together and get something out that wasn’t in either of them?

You…throw Einstein at them?

E equals m c squared. This equation, famous to the point of cliché, is often misinterpreted. One useful way to think about it is that it describes mass as a type of energy, and clarifies how to convert between units of mass and units of energy. Then E in the equation is merely the contribution to the energy of a particle from its mass, while the full energy also includes kinetic energy, the energy of motion.

Energy is conserved, that is, cannot be created or destroyed. Mass, on the other hand, being merely one type of energy, is not necessarily conserved. The reason why mass seems to be conserved in day to day life is because it takes a huge amount of energy to make any appreciable mass: the c in m c squared is the speed of light, after all. That’s why if you’ve got a radioactive atom it will decay into lighter elements, never heavier ones.

However, this changes with enough kinetic energy. If you get something like a proton accelerated to up near the speed of light, its kinetic energy will be comparable to (or even much higher than) its mass. With that much “spare” energy, energy can transform from one form into another: from kinetic energy into mass!

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Energy isn’t the only thing that’s conserved: so is charge, and not just electric charge, but other sorts of charge too, like the colors of quarks.  All in all, the sorts of particles that are allowed to be created are governed by the ways particles can interact. So you need not just one high energy particle, but two high energy particles interacting in order to discover new particles.

And that, in essence, is what a particle collider is all about. By sending two particles hurtling towards each other at almost the speed of light you are allowing two high energy particles to interact. The bigger the machine, the faster those particles can go, and thus the more kinetic energy is free to transform into mass. Thus the more powerful you make your particle collider, the more likely you are to see rare, highly massive particles that if left alone in nature would transform unseen into less massive particles in order to release their copious energy. By producing these massive particles inside a particle collider we can make sure they are created inside of sophisticated particle detectors, letting us observe what they turn into with precision and extrapolate what the original particles were. That’s how we found the Higgs, and it’s how we’re trying to find superpartners. It’s one of the only ways we have to answer questions about the fundamental rules that govern the universe.


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