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In the article “The New Collider”, Jerry Friedman describes a new and much more powerful particle accelerator. He explains how the Large ­Hadron Collider (LHC), lying hundreds of feet below the Swiss-French border, will smash seven-trillion-electron-volt beams of protons against one another in a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets. Friedman calls this huge machine the world’s “most ambitious scientific instrument.”

A photo essay shows how the LHC works. One of the $6 billion particle accelerator’s most important detectors is called Atlas: it is seven stories high and weighs more than 100 747 jets. Another, the CMS, weighs one and a half times as much as the Eiffel Tower. Scientists hope to use these detectors, and others like them, to study phenomena at a ten-billionth the scale of the atom and so complete the standard model of particle physics. In particular, they want to verify the existence of a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson, which is believed to generate mass in the universe.

Particle accelerators like the LHC and the earlier Stanford Linear Accelerator are the most beautiful machines humans have ever made, because they are incredibly complex and have no function other than to discover the fundamental nature of the universe. Scientists who use these technologies, like Jerry Friedman, are among our species’ most adventurous minds.

The Roman writer and statesman Seneca wrote, “Rationale enim animal est homo”: “Man is surely an animal possessing reason.” True, but some humans think more deeply than others. The Romans created an oratory and poetry of unparalleled expressive power. Of their governance, the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon wrote that “the human race was most happy and prosperous” during the interval that “elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” But to the Romans the physical world was obscurely magical. Because we care to understand the world and they did not, and because of the progressive ­character of science, we see more clearly the nature of things. With the LHC we shall, perhaps, see the foundations of reality. The heroic age is not the classical era but our own.

Write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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Credit: Mark Ostow

Tagged: Computing

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