Primordial Train Wreck

A 100-meter-deep tunnel near the Jura Mountains on the border of Switzerland and France is the site of what will arguably be the most important event in the history of the universe. That's where physicists at the CERN laboratory for particle physics in Geneva are building the Large Hadron Collider, a €4 billion particle accelerator. When the LHC whirs into operation in 2007, it will put Anne-Sylvie Giolo-Nicollerat and thousands of other particle physicists on a fast track to answering no lesser mystery than the origin of all things.

Giolo-Nicollerat, 28, is counting on the LHC to give her a ringside seat to tiny re-enactments of the moments that followed the Big Bang, the cosmic event physicists posit begat the universe 14 billion years ago. To do this, scientists will use superconducting magnets to accelerate two protons round the track, 27km in circumference, to just under the speed of light. At that point they will have the energy of a 400-ton TGV moving at 200kph--and will smash into each other, creating the highest collision energies ever obtained in a lab. Scientists will watch the collisions for what new and strange particles come splintering off in all directions.

The particle that interests scientists the most is the Higgs Boson--a.k.a. the God Particle--for its significance as a missing piece of evidence for current theories of physics. The LHC is the first accelerator ever built to reach the kind of energies needed to produce the Higgs. If scientists find it, they may discover why objects have mass. Giolo-Nicollerat is helping to build one of the detectors that will seek out the Higgs by observing millions of particle collisions every second. "One collision out of a million is interesting," she says. "And one collision out of a billion would be really new physics, a discovery."

What if the detectors see something else, something unexpected? So much the better--it would mean that current theories are out of whack and would open up new career opportunities for young physicists like Giolo-Nicollerat. "The worst thing that could happen is that you find everything that is in agreement with [current] theory," she says. "My hope is that [the LHC] will upset our vision of the world." Get ready to throw out that old textbook.