DOXA 2013: Talking extreme particle physics ahead of The Circle screening

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      Buried deep beneath the rural countryside along the French and Swiss border is a machine capable of producing energy at levels unequaled in human history.

      The Large Hadron Collider fires beams of protons powerful enough to melt a small car nearly instantaneously, and crashes them into each at 99.999999 percent of the speed of light. When those protons collide, they release even higher levels of energy and create conditions similar to what existed just billionths of a second after the big bang.

      The world’s most-powerful particle accelerator and its picturesque home below a string of quiet European villages is the subject of The Circle, which plays at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Tuesday (May 7) at VIFF’s Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour Street) at 5:15 p.m.

      Robert McPherson, an adjunct professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Victoria, doesn’t appear in The Circle, though he easily could have. McPherson spent a decade living in St-Genis-Pouilly, one of those tiny French towns under which the LHC is buried. For the duration of his stay, he worked on the LHC at CERN, the group that built and operates the machine.

      “People living in the local countryside are rather aware of the LHC and even somewhat proud of the science being done by CERN,” McPherson said in a telephone interview. “There are a few inconveniences—for example, the transport of large pieces of apparatus on small countryside roads—but the locals seem to know it's completely safe.”

      Today, McPherson continues his work with CERN at UBC’s Triumf Laboratory (an audience partner for The Circle’s DOXA screening) as part of a team of Canadian scientists analyzing data collected by the LHC’s ATLAS detector, Canada’s most significant contribution to the project.

      He talked at length about the discovery of the Higgs Boson—the so-called “God Particle, which was officially announced on March 14, 2013—and where CERN, particle physics, and all of humankind, is heading with the LHC.

      “We now know that we’re seeing the signals of how energy acquires mass to become matter—that’s the Higgs—and so now we can really start to study it in great detail,” he said. “We’re really now entering into the next generation of our understanding of matter… For me, it is fantastically exciting.”

      McPherson added that with the existence of the Higgs confirmed, CERN is moving on to even more ambitious targets, such as evidence of cold dark matter and supersymmetry.

      To get there, he continued, CERN is planning on turning energy levels at the LHC up past anything employed so far, to twice what was used to create the particle collisions that allowed for observations of the Higgs.

      Doubling energy levels that already hold world records might give some cause for alarm, given that a 2008 incident at the LHC forced the device offline for an entire year, but McPherson said the team is confident and ready to go ahead.

      “The machine had an explosion—I don’t think there is a nicer word to use,” he explained. “It was like a short circuit that caused the explosion. But this has been identified, and we understand all of the fixes that have to go into the magnet systems to run it at the higher energies… We’ll turn back on again in 2015 at full energy.”

      McPherson described the discoveries being made at the LHC as “part of the reason why I became a particle physicist to begin with.”

      “I think we’re really in the dawn of a new chapter in our understanding of matter,” he said, “where the universe came from, and where it’s going.”

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      louis lalonde

      May 7, 2013 at 6:46am

      Higgs Boson is still to this day a theoretical particle only. A particle which is one of the pillars of the Big Bang Theory. That theory is under more and more criticism as observations in the real world contradict more and more concepts like the Big Bang, Dark Matter, Dark Energy, Higgs Boson and other absurdities fabricated by Big Bang mathematicians who like to invent mathematical contructs which have nothing to do with the physical world and do not come from observations. The mainstream medias help to perpetuate the Big Bang myth. It is part of their tendancy and program to push forward sensationalist « news » and theories. And like the caption under the photo says, Big Bangers are mislead by gravity, which is an extremely weak force in the univers, compared to electro-magnetism. Trying to explain the univers through gravity is totally moronic.


      May 7, 2013 at 8:33am

      Luise - Why not look at gravity? It is more of a mystery than electromagnetism. It is all pervasive. It WARPS space. It certainly will be as important as the Higgs in understanding the Universe.
      AND, if needs be, I'm sure science can let go of the Big Bang, or at least adjust it's thinking. Science is profoundly aware of the the limitations in our understanding of the Universe.
      I'm happy we're working to figure it out.


      May 7, 2013 at 10:24am

      Gravity doesn't warp space. gravity is not a property of mass.

      gravity is the warp/motion of empty space.

      Bob Morane

      May 7, 2013 at 11:41am

      Our understanding of the universe doesn't have to be total and instantaneous. The more science is going forward, the less you see scientists pretending to have "the truth" in their hands (like in the 1950's and earlier). Science has proven its efficiency already and it is doing it faster and faster as our technology improves.

      To disagree with a theory is OK, even necessary. But to do so, you must bring in your own theory, based on high-level knowledge and/or rock-solid observations and measurements. Critic expressed in terms like "moronic", "absurdities", "sensationalist" won't help prove or disprove anything.

      this article shows at least that some people are moving things around. Scientific and technological results will come out eventually. The past 300 years of science history can't be all wrong...