Meyrin, SWITZERLAND -- The rural Swiss settlement of Merin sits at the base of the Turet forest, just north of sleepy Geneva and not far from the French-Swiss border. Rocky hills rise above the dense forest and offer a picturesque view of the undulating Helvetian countryside. Many a SS commander must have taken in this view on their way to deposit Nazi loot into the welcoming Swiss bank vaults that lay just ahead.
But these days Europe is about cooperation, and buried 70 meters below ground at Meyrin is a futuristic example of what international teamwork can accomplish: A particle accelerator.
Most people can't help resorting to hyperbole and cliche when describing the device that lies beneath the Franco-Swiss border. The scale of it is so mind-bending that it's hard not to resort to the language of childlike science-fiction wonder. At its heart, the project is a human effort to understand the most fundamental constituents of the physical universe. But it's not as boring as it sounds. What it amounts to is the world's fastest, biggest, most elaborate crash-test site.
This device is being built and controlled by CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, which is run and funded by 20 member states, including Russia. CERN has been responsible for some pretty important achievements in the past. They're the guys that created antimatter, which is the same as matter, but exactly the opposite--sort of like Bad Ash in Army of Darkness. But what they're working on now pretty much leaves everything else in the cosmic dust.
Its name is the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. And it's the single most complicated machine ever developed by humanity. It also happens to be one of the largest civil engineering projects ever attempted, employing one of the biggest computers on the planet. When completed, it will contain one of the coldest and emptiest places in the known universe.
The basic idea behind the LHC is actually quite simple. Scientists don't yet understand why ordinary matter behaves the way it does. And since the best way to find figure out how something works is to take--or break--it apart. And that's what the LHC is all about. When it goes on-line in March 2008, the LHC will smash together tiny clumps of matter with such ferocious energies that they hope to be able to find out exactly how they tick. Or, as some fear, create a man-made black hole that will suck the universe into itself.
The main component of the LHC is a concrete tunnel that inscribes a 27-kilometer-long circle underneath the vineyards north of Geneva. Inside are two parallel tubes that will be cooled to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero by hundreds of liters of liquid helium. Inside each tube, powerful pumps will create one of the most perfect vacuums in existence--many times emptier than interstellar space.
When the LHC goes online, these tubes will become the fastest speedway on the planet. Inside them, tiny bunches of protons (the positively charged particles that make up matter) will be accelerated to unimaginable velocities--more than 99.9 per cent of the speed of light. For those that missed out on high school physics, that's 670,616,629 mph. These speeds have never been achieved before anywhere on Earth, and they're what make the LHC so special.
The key to the LHC's uniqueness is not the materials it'll use, but the tremendous energies those materials will attain. When the LHC becomes active, its proton beams will collide with each other at several points along the 27-kilometre ring. During each head-on crash, each "bunch" of protons will weigh less than one one-billionth of a gram, but they'll be traveling so fast, they'll contain enough energy to instantly vaporize a ton of copper.
* * * *
Early one late-September morning, Igor Golutvin, Russian physicist working on the project, was standing with me precisely at the place where these explosions will occur. He was trying to explain what it he'll be looking for. But the thing is, he's not really sure. No one is. The whole point of experiments like the LHC is to try to provide new questions for physicists to answer about the nature of our universe.