Large Hadron Collider Gears Up to Go Beyond Boundaries of Human Understanding

Large Hadron Collider
A tunnel housing the Large Hadron Collider experiment at CERN near Geneva in 2014. Pierre Albouy/Reuters

A scientist working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has compared the work his team are doing to going to the ends of the earth to chart new land.

CERN, the facility which houses a the world's most powerful particle accelerator below the French-Swiss border, announced this weekend it had fired up its 27km long proton-beam cylinder in preparation for new experiments next month which could break new ground in how we understand the universe.

After a two-year upgrade following the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 - an elementary particle that fits with the standard model of particle physics - the LHC will now fire together protons travelling at almost the speed of light in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the very building blocks of the universe.

The hope is that CERN's scientists will gather data that will help them to discover the origin of mass, explain gravity, and find evidence for the existence of dark matter and dark energy that are thought to make up the bulk of the mass in the universe but are not visible.

Marumi Kado, a particle physicist who works on the ATLAS project - one of the detectors on the LHC's loop which collects data from the particle collisions - says the point of the experiment is to go beyond the boundaries of current human knowledge.

"We don't have a coherent, complete model [of physics] that includes gravity," he explains. "The standard model does not explain it. We don't have a quantum theory of gravity. So we believe there is something that could lead us forwards to better integrate gravity."

The upgrades cost around €137 million, adding to the approximate total of €5.5 billion it cost to build the LHC in the first place. CERN - and the LHC - is funded by 20 European member states and Israel, which joined last year, who are represented on a council which makes decisions for the organisation. Funding agencies from non-member states also contribute.

But Kado says the money is negligible compared to the reward of breaking entirely new ground.

"I completely agree it's a lot of money but it's really an incredibly small amount of money with respect to a lot of much less interesting things it could be spent on. There are many things you could do with this amount of money but it's not so big with respect to a lot of budgetary spending."

Kado explains that discoveries from the data collected in the next stage of the experiment wouldn't present immediately foreseeable applications in day to day life.

"I cannot tell you for the moment at least. Of course in the far distant future it's not impossible that they would find a way to use this," he says.

"It is about understanding nature in the microscopic worlds. Imagining the ensemble of things we know, what is the frontier of our knowledge, it has a boundary and we want to go beyond this boundary."

"When we thought the world was ending at the boundaries of the ocean, we wanted to go further to see if there was something else. For the moment its really pushing the boundary of our knowledge."

Although Kado admits there are no guarantees the experiment will uncover any earth-shattering discoveries this time, he says "at least we will have charted this territory", adding, "there's a good chance there is new land."