SA gets in on Big Bang action

Read time 3min 10sec

South African scientists will join their international counterparts in an attempt to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, following yesterday's historic scientific breakthrough in Europe.

In what is being dubbed the world's largest experiment, scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) yesterday broke the record for high-energy proton beam collisions. The experiment hopes to explain how the world and its tiniest components work.

The LHC fired beams that collided at 7Tev (unit of energy), three times higher than ever created before.

South African physicists played a large role in the development of the LHC, built by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Access to Seacom has placed local scientists from universities across the country in a position to join in the analysis of data produced by the LHC experiments.

Speaking to ITWeb late yesterday, Professor Simon Connell, from the Department of Physics, at the University of Johannesburg, said: “This experiment brings us to a golden age of physics. Anyone can now make a discovery, and that is what makes it so exciting.”

SA has been involved with the CERN experiments for almost 20 years, and Connell has participated in a number of the research projects conducted at the LHC. The department is part of the Atlas experiment, one of the four major experiments taking place using the LHC.

Broadband opportunity

Thanks to the arrival of the Seacom cable to South African shores, Connell says SA now has a direct link to CERN and the data being produced by the LHC, giving any South African scientist the chance to make the next great scientific discovery since Einstein. “This project has democratised science,” adds Connell.

SA's connection forms part of a global base of computers, which is being called the Grid, each of which receives and analyses data from the massive contraption under France and Switzerland.

Connell says yesterday's experiment could produce a world-changing breakthrough. “There were doubts about the existence of the electron, but now we can't live without electricity. [Ernest] Rutherford said the same of the nucleus, but it has also changed the world.”

According to Connell, experiments on the LHC could produce information on how to control gravity, or even create new sustainable energy sources.

More on the horizon

The experiment Atlas is on the hunt for the Higgs Boson, a theorised particle scientists predict gives mass to other particles.

In an interview with ITWeb yesterday, the Higgs search coordinator at CERN, Dr Ketevi Assamagan, explained what finding the “god particle” would mean for science.

“Newton explained that weight and mass are proportional to each other, and Einstein showed that energy and mass are proportional, but neither of them explained exactly what mass was. Finding the Higgs Boson would tell us exactly where mass comes from.”

He says this will go a long way to explain how the universe works. However, there is a long way to go before the search can actually begin, he adds. “Yesterday's collision is only the beginning; we have to now recreate these collisions in a sustained way, making sure they are stable,” he notes.

Despite the long road ahead, Assamagan says all the 3 000-plus scientists are looking forward to getting down to work. “What will really be exciting is if we find something completely unexpected,” he concludes.

Connell and Assamagan will present a conference on the LHC's work this evening at 6:30pm at SA's science museum, SciBono.

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