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CERN researchers activate the Large Hadron Collider in their search for dark matter

Ten years ago, a team operating the world’s largest particle collider made history when they discovered the Higgs boson particle, a discovery key to understanding the creation of the universe, earning them the nickname “God particle”.

After a break of more than three years for upgrades, the accelerator, run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, is once again collecting data. This time, it’s about proving the existence of another mysterious substance: dark matter.

Although scientists largely believe that dark matter is real, none have been able to see it or create it. Data collection and power upgrades to the particle breaker, called the Large Hadron Collider, could provide researchers with one of their best chances of visualizing and understanding the substance.

“If we can understand the properties of dark matter, we learn what our galaxy is made of,” said Joshua Ruderman, associate professor of physics at New York University. “That would be transformative.”

Scientists’ search for the Higgs boson yields a new subatomic particle

Dark matter has fascinated physicists for decades. It is widely believed to be an important part of the universe, and learning more about it could provide clues as to how the universe came into existence.

All the stars, planets and galaxies in the universe make up just 5% of the matter in the universe, according to CERN scientists. It is believed that around 27% of the universe is made up of dark matter, which does not absorb, reflect or emit light, making it extremely difficult to detect. Researchers say it exists because they’ve seen its gravitational pull on objects – and witnessed how it helps bend light.

The researchers hope that the Large Hadron Collider can help them. The collider was built over a decade by the European Organization for Nuclear Research to help answer outstanding questions in particle physics. The machine is located about 100 meters underground in a tunnel near the Franco-Swiss border and the city of Geneva. Its circumference stretches nearly 17 miles.

Inside the collider, superconducting magnets are cooled to around -456 degrees Fahrenheit – colder than space – as two beams of particles moving at near light speed are brought into collision. Using advanced sensors and monitors, scientists analyze the substances created by these collisions, which replicate conditions similar to the Big Bang. This allows them to learn about the first moments of the universe.

The machine started working in September 2008 but stopped several times for improvements. Over the past three years, engineers have improved the collider so that it can detect more data and operate at higher speeds. Now the accelerator can operate at its highest energy level ever, 13.6 trillion electron-volts, allowing scientists to conduct larger, more complex experiments that could yield new insights into physics. particles.

“This is a significant increase,” said Mike Lamont, director of accelerators and technology at CERN. “Opening the way to new discoveries.”

The Higgs boson and what it means for technology

In the early universe, particles had no mass, so scientists have long wondered how stars, planets and extra life came to be. In 1964, physicists Francois Englert and Peter Higgs and others theorized that a force field gave particles mass when they connected, but they could not document the existence of the entity.

The discovery of the Higgs boson particle, part of the hypothetical force field, earned Englert and Higgs a Nobel Prize in Physics.

The particle has fascinated scientists and the general public. CERN and the collider feature prominently in Dan Brown’s book and in the adapted movie ‘Angels & Demons’.

But now researchers want to answer trickier questions, especially those surrounding dark matter.

During the four-year Large Hadron Collider experiment, scientists hope to find evidence for the presence of dark matter. By turning on the machine, the protons will spin almost at the speed of light. The hope, the researchers say, is that when they collide, it creates new particles that resemble the properties of dark matter.

They also hope to learn more about the behavior of the Higgs boson particle. On Tuesday, shortly after the collider began collecting data, scientists at CERN announced they had found three new “exotic” particles that could provide clues to how subatomic particles bind.

“High-energy colliders remain the most powerful microscope at our disposal to explore nature at the smallest scales and uncover the fundamental laws that govern the universe,” said Gian Giudice, Head of CERN’s Theory Department.

At the Large Hadron Collider, a glimpse into the future of science

Ruderman, of New York University, said CERN’s quest to learn more about dark matter and explain the origins of the universe has led it to eagerly await the results of the experiment. Research excites him a lot. “That’s why I wake up in the morning,” he says.

Once data starts coming out of the experiment, Ruderman will see if it produces any new particles. Even if it is, it will be difficult to immediately tell whether it is dark matter or not.

First, they will need to assess whether the particle in question emits light. If so, that makes it less likely to be dark matter. Second, the particle should show signs of being around for a long time and not decay immediately, because dark matter should in theory be able to last for billions of years. They also hope the particle behaves similarly to current dark matter theories.

Ruderman said it could take more than four years to make the discovery.

If CERN scientists do not discover dark matter within the next four years, further improvements are in the works. Upgrades will likely take three years after the current run is discontinued, leaving the fourth cycle of data and experiment collection to begin in 2029.

As expected, the test could capture 10 times more data than previous experiments, according to the CERN website. But unlocking the secrets of the universe is not easy.

“It’s difficult,” Ruderman said, “and something that could take a lifetime of exploration.”

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