Ever wonder what it’s like to travel close to the speed of light? Well, what if I told you that it’s possible? Not for you exactly, but for subatomic particles in the universe! Subatomic particles are fundamental units that make up atoms, which can be even smaller than protons and neutrons, such as quarks, neutrinos, and alpha particles (1). Studying this branch of physics gives scientists clues about the basic nature of the universe. But how exactly do scientists force these particles to approach the speed of light?
Meet the particle accelerator.
Particle accelerators are complex scientific instruments that energize and accelerate a beam of particles by utilizing an electric field while steering them using a magnetic field. Particle accelerators come in either a form of a circular accelerator or a line accelerator, depending on how a scientist wants the beam of particles to travel (2). The more energy that a scientist wants to invest in the particles, the more successive accelerators are put together. Beams of particles are often purposefully collided into each other as well. Contrarily, to avoid collisions between gas molecules, the beam is kept in an ultra high vacuum along the accelerator. Precision is key when it comes to complicated matters like subatomic particles. Overall, scientists typically study the collisions of high energy beams to understand how different particles interact with each other and to further understand the complex relationships that make up the fundamental laws of nature.
The world’s biggest particle accelerators have a home at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also famously known as CERN. Founded in 1954 near Geneva, Switzerland, CERN is an international organization that consists of 22 member states, all who are devoted to advancing the studies of particle physics (3). CERN’s facilities are also available for use to over 600 institutions. Funding for major projects is often a collaboration among all of the member states, and they are also in charge of the operations of the particle accelerators across the laboratory.
One of the most famous particle accelerators is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. It is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, spanning over an astounding rage of 27 kilometers (4). Particle beams are shot from opposite ends of the accelerator to collide, and are led by super powerful magnets that are chilled to -273.1 °C – a temperature that is colder than outer space – allowing the accelerator to perform at a greater accuracy. The LHC has even aided in the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in 2013, which explains the origin of the mass of subatomic particles (5).
In the end, particle physics has greatly changed our understanding of the natural universe. Scientists discover more clues about the fundamental laws of the world by observing these extremely tiny particles, and thanks to advancing technology – like the particle accelerator – we are able to discover phenomena once thought unimaginable to the scientific community.
(1) Sutton, Christine. Subatomic Particle. Encyclopedia, Britannica. Jul. 28, 2017.
(2) How an Accelerator Works. CERN. Jan. 20, 2012.
(3) Member States. CERN. Jan. 19, 2012.
(4) The Large Hadron Collider. CERN. Jan. 21, 2014.
(5) What Exactly is the Higgs Boson? Have Physicists Proved that it Really Exists? The Scientific American.