Large Hadron ColliderRecreating the past.
The very basic building blocks of the nucleus of an atom are called 'Quarks' and these need to be thoroughly investigated if we are ever to truly understand the nature of our universe.
The problem is that these particles only ever existed on their own a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.
After that they quickly formed into Protons and Neutrons and and then atoms, so we can't actually see them in their natural state now.
The only way we can get to see and investigate Quarks is to bring about a situation where we can shatter the structure of a proton and seperate it into its constituent parts. That's where the Large Hadron Collider comes in.
The name Hadron is a general term for any particle that's made from Quarks. So for example a Proton and a Neutron are both 'Hadrons'.
The LHC is a vast circular tunnel buried underground that uses giant magnets to propel particles at ever increasing speeds around and around. It is so powerful that it's able to accelerate the particles to an incredible 99.9999% of the speed of light.
(*The laws of physics pretty much prevent any higher speeds as Einstein's equation demonstrates that a particle's mass starts to increase rapidly as it gets near light speed and therefore the additional energy required to increase the speed even further becomes greater and greater at an exponential rate.)
An equal amount of particles are also accelerated in the opposite direction around the LHC and once the desired speed is obtained the magnets are altered slightly to cause a head-on collision!
At that speed the impact causes the protons to smash apart into their constituent parts - particles that previously only existed on their own for a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.
Although the particles are far too small to see with any current equipment, we can still measure what they do and how they behave by following the tracks they leave behind. For example in the diagram on the left you can see some swirly tracks - some that go clockwise and some that go anti-clockwise. This happens because they are charged and the magnets cause the rotation, so it shows what kind of charge they have and in some cases will show that anti-matter has been created.
The LHC allows us to travel back in time and observe what happened in the first micro seconds of the Big Bang when Quarks and the forces that join them together - Gluons - were all that existed. It therefore allows us to begin to understand how these early particles interacted and find out if there are any more still to be discovered.
It may also help physicists track down the elusive 'Higgs Bosun', which is a predicted force field that interacts with particles and causes them to increase in mass. This increase in mass is something that has puzzled scientists for a long time as basically particles appear to be much heavier than their constituent parts - a bit like pouring two 1kg bags of sugar into your kitchen scales and discovering it now weighs 3kg.
It's thought this mysterious Higgs force may be causing a 'drag' effect on particles somehow, which then causes their mass to rise. The LHC should help identify and verify the existence of the Higgs Bosun, or alternatively may show that we are wrong and there is another completely different explanation...
PS: As the particles can get very near to the speed of light in the LHC we can also observe that amazing feature of time slowing down at these speeds - ie. a particle which normally would only survive for a billionth of a second actually stays around for much longer, demonstrating that its own time has slowed down in comparison to ours!