Science rode a beam of subatomic particles and a river of champagne into the future Wednesday.
After 14 years of work, scientists at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva successfully activated the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest, most powerful particle collider. At more than $8 billion, it's the most expensive scientific experiment to date.
After a series of trial runs, two white dots flashed on a computer screen at 10:26 a.m. indicating that the protons had traveled clockwise along the collider's 17-mile-long track, 300 feet under the Swiss-French border.
“It's a fantastic moment,” said Lyn Evans, project director of the collider since its inception. “We can now look forward to a new era of understanding about the origins and evolution of the universe.”
Champagne corks popped in labs as far away as Chicago, where contributing and competing scientists watched the proceedings by satellite.
Five hours later, scientists successfully fired a beam counterclockwise.
Physicists around the world now have much greater power to smash the components of atoms together in attempts to learn about their structure.
“Well done, everybody,” said Robert Aymar, director-general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, to cheers from the scientists in the collider's control room at the Swiss-French border.
The organization, known by its French acronym CERN, began firing the protons – a type of subatomic particle – around the tunnel in stages less than an hour earlier, with the first beam injection at 9:35 a.m.
Eventually, the collider is expected to accelerate protons to energies of 7trillion electron volts and then smash them together, recreating conditions in the primordial fireball only a trillionth of a second after the big bang. Scientists hope the machine will be a sort of Hubble Space Telescope of inner space, allowing them to detect new subatomic particles and forces of nature.
“My first thought was relief,” said Evans, who has been working on the project since its inception in 1984. “This is a machine of enormous complexity. Things can go wrong at any time. But this morning has been a great start.”
He didn't want to set a date, but said that he expected scientists would be able to conduct collisions for their experiments “within a few months.”
The collider is designed to push the proton beam close to the speed of light, whizzing 11,000 times a second around the tunnel.
Scientists hope to eventually send two beams of protons through two tubes about the width of fire hoses, speeding through a vacuum that is colder and emptier than outer space. The paths of these beams will cross, and a few protons will collide. The collider's two largest detectors — essentially huge digital cameras weighing thousands of tons — are capable of taking millions of snapshots a second.
The CERN experiments could reveal more about “dark matter,” antimatter and possibly hidden dimensions of space and time. It could also find evidence of a hypothetical particle — the Higgs boson — which is sometimes called the “God particle” because it is believed to give mass to all other particles, and thus to matter that makes up the universe.
The supercooled magnets that guide the proton beam heated slightly in the morning's first test, leading to a pause to cool them before trying the opposite direction.
Gillies told the AP that the most dangerous thing that could happen would be if a beam at full power were to go out of control, and that would only damage the accelerator itself and burrow into the rock around the tunnel.
Nothing of the sort occurred Wednesday, though the accelerator is still probably a year away from full power.
The project organized by the 20 European member nations of CERN has attracted researchers from 80 nations. Some 1,200 are from the U.S., an observer country that contributed $531 million. Japan, another observer, also is a major contributor. The New York Times and The Associated Press contributed.