The world’s largest particle accelerator just broke another world record — here’s why it actually matters

On May 20 the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) broke a world energy record. It’s now smashing particles together with nearly twice as much energy as the old record, and it’s going to start churning out data next week.

The LHC at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland fires particles around a 17-mile underground tunnel and smashes them together at nearly the speed of light.

It looks kind of like this:

Particle collision two

What do we gain from doing this, other thanawesome-looking data patternsand maybe proving somewild physics theories?

During a Reddit AMA with several LHC physicists, Reddit user FantastiqueDutchie asked exactly that:

Explain to me like I am five: why are you doing this and what makes it important? What could we/you do with this data in the future?

The physicists gave some fantastic answers.

1. Practical, life-saving applications

Federico Ronchetti who works on the ALICE experiment in the LHC said the research has already yielded practical applications, and higher energies could mean even more insights, and eventually, applications of that knowledge.

Technology found in particle accelerators is already used for certain types of cancer surgery, and CERN gave birth to the world wide web because scientists needed a way to share the massive amount of data they were collecting with each other, Ronchetti wrote.

Claire Lee, who works on the ATLAS experiment, pointed out a few more examples from the past in her answer:

  • When Einstein developed his theory of General Relativity, he just wanted to explain the way gravity worked. Now, your GPS locator in your smartphone uses these exact GR equations to remain accurate.
  • Most particle accelerators are actually found in hospitals, in MRI machines, helping with diagnostic medicine.
  • The web was developed right here at CERN to help scientists transmit important pieces of information to each other and aid in data analysis. Now, hello! 🙂
  • The Grid, which is a network of high performance computers we use to analyse the vast amounts of data we get from our experiments, is also used in other fields (such as breast cancer image processing, I think)

2. Simple curiosity

Beate Heinemann who works with the ATLAS experiment said a big motivation for physicists at the LHC is that they’re simply curious.

“We see the Universe and particle physicists want to understand what it is made of and how it came to be,” Heinemann wrote. “Whether this is useful or not we don’t know as we don’t know what we will find.”

Higher energy collisions could reveal a whole host of new particles that we’ve never observed before, and completely change how we understand the world around us.

3. Advancing the human race

Steve Goldfarb who works with ATLAS had a very practical reason for why the LHC is important.

“Over time, we have found that, every time we learn something new about nature, the information is used by our children or their children to help them survive,” Goldfarb wrote.

Everything we have today that allows humans flourish, including farming, electricity, worldwide communication, all started with basic research.

“We do not know exactly what our discoveries and measurements will lead to,” Goldfarb wrote. “It is too soon to say. But, we do know they will contribute significantly to our understanding of our world. And, as human being, we have no choice but to pursue them. It is a question of survival.”

As for how you’d explain the LHC to an actual 5-year-old? Lee joked that she had an answer for that one too. She made up a parody of a song in Disney’s “Frozen.” It’s meant to be sung to the tune of “Do you want to build a snowman?”

The LHC will start churning out new data at this unprecedented energy level next week, and we can’t wait to see what happens.

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