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The Science Behind Particle Accelerators

By Varun Vasudeva

It’s a known fact that some people are straight up scared of science. It’s also not hard to imagine that most of the others are apprehensive about it simply because it seems difficult. It is difficult but seems much less so when explained properly.

If any of you have ever watched TV shows like The Flash, you’ve probably heard of a particle accelerator but never really given it a second thought apart from thinking it’s a superhero-creator. This article essentially discusses what a particle accelerator is, how it works and why exactly we build them.

A particle accelerator is, in essence, an extremely large machine which uses energy provided by massive electrical sources to accelerate elementary particles such as electrons, protons and positrons. When put briefly, it consists of:

1. the energy source

2. vacuum chamber

3. large coils of electrical conducting wire

4. a particle injector

5. particle detectors

Now to explain what each of those things do: an energy source provides the energy to create an electric current through the coil that winds around the tubing of the machine. The vacuum chamber removes all particles from inside the tube (including air) so there’s no interference to the travel path of the injected particle. (An interesting fact to note is that when a powerful vacuum chamber is used, whatever space we’ve created vacuum in becomes like outer space – it contains absolutely nothing!)

The current coil around the tubing creates a very powerful controlled magnetic field on the inside of the tube, which the particle then follows until its eventual collision. The particle injector does exactly what its name suggests it does, by injecting the desired particle into the tubing of the accelerator so it can enter the magnetic field. Finally, the particle detectors positioned inside the accelerator detect collisions and show the scatter patterns when particles collide with each other at near-light speeds.

One might wonder, however, why exactly we’d want to build these massive and expensive machines that throw very tiny things at each other and produce cool effects. Luckily, they don’t simply do that (although the patterns really are fabulously complicated to look at). The scatter produced by the collisions of particles reveal the very nature of the fundamental particles we collide, because collisions like this took place at every instant during the Big Bang phase of the universe. Using the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Switzerland, scientists were able to analyse troves of data and eventually point out the existence of the elusive Higgs Boson in 2012. Discoveries such as this bring us ever closer to the creation of a unified field theory, which reconciles both general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Rohil Bahl