How does an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider work?

June 8, 2015 by Gavin Hesketh, The Conversation
Supersize symmetry. Credit: Maximilien Brice/CERN

It's not every day my Twitter feed is full of people talking about flat-tops, squeezing and injections, but then Wednesday 3 June was not an average day for the Large Hadron Collider.

The LHC is the world's largest and lies in a tunnel below CERN, the European physics lab just outside Geneva. And on Wednesday it was restarted after two year break for repairs and upgrades, ready to push our understanding of the universe to new limits.

As my fellow physicists crowded into the control rooms and waited for things to get underway, I was at a workshop in France. But I was able to follow the switch-on online. Here's how things went down.

8.09am. Injection: Billions of protons are loaded into the LHC.

The LHC is a ring roughly 28km around that accelerates protons almost to the speed of light before colliding them head on. Protons are particles found in the atomic nucleus, roughly one thousand-million-millionth of a metre in size.

They are easiest to get from hydrogen, the simplest atom with just one electron orbiting one proton. The LHC starts with a bottle of hydrogen gas, which is sent through an electric field to strip away the electrons, leaving just the protons. Electric and magnetic fields are the key to a particle accelerator: because protons are positively charged, they accelerate when in an and bend in a circle in a magnetic field.

9.45am. Ramp: Once the LHC is fully loaded, its two proton beams are slowly accelerated up to collision energy, now a world-record 6.5TeV per beam.

Accelerating billions of protons to close to the speed of light, directing them all the way around the LHC, and then colliding them head-on, is a delicate balancing act performed by high voltage equipment and giant magnets. This is an amazing technical achievement. Indeed one of the main applications of particle physics research is in the industrial applications of the technology it develops along the way, from proton therapy cancer treatment to the world wide web.

Big data. Credit: M.Brice/CERN

But for me, the excitement is in the science: the LHC is exploring the universe at the smallest scales. Everything we have learned so far is formulated in the Standard Model, a theory which describes the universe made of tiny particles, and gives the rules for how these particles behave. By smashing some of these particles together at high energy, we are able to test these rules and make new discoveries.

The LHC "Run 1" (2010-2013) provided enough data to test the Standard Model to new levels of precision and discover the Higgs boson. This particle was predicted in the 1960s and plays a central role in the Standard Model. But it was almost 50 years before we had a machine powerful enough to discover it. As well as high energy, it needed lots of data: the Higgs boson is a rare thing, and fewer than one in a billion collisions at the LHC produce one.

10.12am. Flat top: Beam energy levels off after reaching the target.

These were tense moments for the CERN team on Wednesday. The LHC was operating at the highest energy ever achieved in a particle accelerator. "Run 2" will collide protons at 60% higher energies than Run 1 by pushing the magnets and accelerators to the limit. We hope this extra reach will allow us to tackle some of the big questions in particle physics.

One of the main topics is dark matter. This seems to be a new type of particle spread through the entire universe. And with the LHC Run 2 we hope to make it in the lab for the first time. But if the Higgs boson is rare, dark matter is even rarer, and we will need to sort through a lot of collisions before having a hope of finding it.

10.17am. Squeeze: The beams are fine-tuned, and focused at the four points around the LHC where they cross, and the experiments will record the collisions

Tense moments. Credit: Laurent Egli/CERN

Almost there. The experiments now need to wait for the all-clear before they can start recording, and we begin studying things that have never been seen before. Still, many of the collisions will not be interesting, as the just smash apart without doing anything exciting.

To make matters worse, the rare new particles we are looking for also tend to be very unstable, and decay too quickly to be seen directly. So the job of the experiments is to measure whatever particles do come out of a collision and try to reconstruct what happened, looking for evidence of something unusual.

As well as , there are many other ideas to test, such as supersymmetry, new gauge bosons, quantum black holes and heavy neutrinos, all of which we could reconstruct from the LHC collisions. Part of the joy and pain of science is that a new discovery could come in a matter of days, or a matter of years.

How does an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider work?
Worlds collide. Credit: CMS/CERN
10.43am. Stable beams: The LHC is now running smoothly, the beams are behaving as expected, and the experiments can start recording data.

Run 2 has begun! Champagne is flowing at CERN. Now the attention moves to analysing the new data, and it's time for the rest of us to get back to work.

Gavin Hesketh is Lecturer in Particle Physics at UCL.

How does an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider work?
Champagne flowing. Mike Struik/CERN

Explore further: World's largest particle collider busts record

Related Stories

Short circuit delays particle hunter machine restart

March 25, 2015

A short-circuit at the world's largest proton smasher has indefinitely delayed the particle-hunting machine's planned restart, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) said on Wednesday.

First images of LHC collisions at 13 TeV

May 21, 2015

Last night, protons collided in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the record-breaking energy of 13 TeV for the first time. These test collisions were to set up systems that protect the machine and detectors from particles ...

Recommended for you

ATLAS experiment observes light scattering off light

March 20, 2019

Light-by-light scattering is a very rare phenomenon in which two photons interact, producing another pair of photons. This process was among the earliest predictions of quantum electrodynamics (QED), the quantum theory of ...

How heavy elements come about in the universe

March 19, 2019

Heavy elements are produced during stellar explosion or on the surfaces of neutron stars through the capture of hydrogen nuclei (protons). This occurs at extremely high temperatures, but at relatively low energies. An international ...

Trembling aspen leaves could save future Mars rovers

March 18, 2019

Researchers at the University of Warwick have been inspired by the unique movement of trembling aspen leaves, to devise an energy harvesting mechanism that could power weather sensors in hostile environments and could even ...

Quantum sensing method measures minuscule magnetic fields

March 15, 2019

A new way of measuring atomic-scale magnetic fields with great precision, not only up and down but sideways as well, has been developed by researchers at MIT. The new tool could be useful in applications as diverse as mapping ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 11, 2015
I get it. Not the standard model but the maximum allowable speed of a set of protons in a loop. The radius and the field define the speed. Does this define the proton inertia? Or is the speed limitless, i.e. zero mass!?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.