BILLIONS of protons travelling almost as fast as the speed of light smash into each other, providing scientists around the world with a rare glimpse of what the big bang may have looked like.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – a 27km tunnel lying 100m beneath the Franco-Swiss border at scientific research centre CERN – is the world’s largest atom smasher and only a small number of researchers have the opportunity to witness the gigantic instrument in action.
But residents in the Capital now have the chance to view a mini version of the world’s biggest science experiment at an exhibition on their doorsteps.
It is on public display in the Main Hall of the Scottish Parliament from today as part of a UK exhibition, with visitors being given the chance to walk through a 3.8m wide replica of a section of the LHC tunnel, as well as meeting Scottish physicists involved in last year’s ground-breaking Higgs boson discovery.
Victoria Martin, 38, who has been a researcher and lecturer at Edinburgh University’s School of Physics and Astronomy since 2005, is encouraging residents of all ages to come along to the interactive exhibition.
The mother-of-one from Abbeyhill explains: “The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest atom smasher; it does what it says on the tin. We take protons – tiny particles that you and me are mainly made of – and we make them move as fast as we possibly can using magnets. The LHC is mainly filled with magnets – it’s a magnetic racetrack.
“The protons get very close to the speed of light but can’t get any faster than that. We smash them into each other, with one set going one way and one set going another way, and see what happens. It actually gives you a glimpse of what the big bang was like when the universe was created.
“We don’t know very much about what happened in the big bang. We are watching the collisions of these protons via a huge digital camera that is connected over the internet to see what happened and what other particles exist.
“I can sit here in my office in Edinburgh and watch these collisions as they’re happening. We have been watching the mini big bangs for two years. We managed to see some Higgs boson in amongst the other stuff coming out of the mini big bangs.”
She adds: “Visitors to the exhibition can go in the tunnel and feel what it’s like and see what the magnets are like that are used in the racetrack. It will look identical to the real tunnel, although not all of it is made of the very expensive magnets. We are not going to do the smashing of the protons.”
Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs is the man behind the Higgs boson – one of the most revolutionary discoveries in modern physics. In the 1960s, the now 83-year-old predicted that a new particle existed – the Higgs boson, which was discovered last year by physicists at CERN who have hailed it a science-changing event.
When Dr Martin was an undergraduate student at Edinburgh University, Professor Higgs was one of her lecturers.
Dr Martin, who graduated with a BSc in Mathematical Physics and a PHD in Experimental Particle Physics, says: “He was quite a challenging lecturer who covered quite tough material. As a researcher, I found him very inspiring.
“He came up with this idea of the Higgs boson almost 50 years ago and he’s always been sure that was the right idea, even though there was no real evidence for it. He’s managed to hold this belief for such a long time and it was the right thing to believe all the time.”
She adds: “He’s a really nice Edinburgh gentleman. He is very modest and very nice to talk to, and not one of these scientists who’s only about the science. He’s just a very modest, polite Edinburgh gentleman. He has become a scientific celebrity who is attracting autograph hunters.”
Science fanatics will be hoping Professor Higgs himself will make an appearance at the week-long exhibition, which will be attended by around ten researchers from Edinburgh University who have worked with CERN on the LHC experiments, including Dr Martin. They will be on hand to answer any questions from visitors and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Professor Alan Walker – who was recently honoured for his contribution to the world of physics – will also be answeringquestions at the exhibition.
The 68-year-old, who lives in Portobello, recently received an MBE for services to science engagement and science education in Scotland.
Dr Martin, who is part of the LHC project and visits CERN six to eight times a year, says the exhibition being just ten minutes from her home makes it all the more exciting.
“I think it should be really good,” she says. “It is really nice that it is actually coming to Edinburgh because Scotland has made a big contribution to the whole thing, not just because we have Peter Higgs here – there are 80 researchers that are part of the LHC project. It’s really nice to have the exhibition in Edinburgh to remind people that even though the project is at CERN, we are making a really big contribution. That’s really exciting.”
Dr Martin is hoping that her four-year-old son Finnan Fox-Martin will come along to the exhibition and “learn something”.
“He’s quite interested in science, as much as a four-year-old can be!” she says.
And he won’t be the only youngster in attendance, as the exhibition, which will also feature interactive exhibits, is open to everyone, from children with very little knowledge of science right up to amateur and professional scientists.
The free exhibition, which last visited the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff, has been organised by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and will run until next Saturday, but will not be open tomorrow.
Professor John Womersley, STFC chief executive, says: “This visit by the life-sized model of the LHC to Holyrood is a wonderful way to explain to as many people as possible just how important Scottish scientists, researchers and engineers have been to the world’s largest science experiment at CERN.”