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Subterranean secrets of the Universe

By Matthew Knight for CNN
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(CNN) -- In a cosmic-sized cavern 100 meters beneath the French-Swiss border, scientists from around the globe are making final preparations for the largest experiment the world has ever seen in an attempt to unearth the origins of the Universe.

Most tourists making their way up into the nearby Jura Mountains or to the slopes of the Alps will be unaware of the work of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) who have been conducting scientific experiments for over half a century.

Founded in 1954 and now funded by 20 European states, it employs over 6,500 scientists from 80 countries and is the world's largest particle physics laboratory.

Devotees of the author Dan Brown might recall that CERN played a substantial part in his best-selling novel Angels and Demons.

World Wide Web historians will also know that the idea for it was conceived at the laboratory in 1989. But otherwise CERN has quietly gone about its business in relative anonymity. All this may be about to change.

In November next year the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) the largest -- 27km in circumference -- and highest energy -- 7 Tera-electron Volts(TeV) -- particle accelerator ever constructed will be switched on.

The LHC is the successor to the Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP) which was operational from 1989-2000. The job of the LHC is to fire protons (high-energy particles) in opposite directions around the 27 kilometer ring at 11,000 times per second -- a velocity approaching the speed of light.

Black holes

It is so powerful, it is capable of creating mini-black holes. The hope is that the collisions -- up to one billion per second -- will reproduce the conditions that were in existence immediately after the Big Bang some 10 billion years ago.

The fired protons -- guided by the use of around 5,000 super-conducting magnets which operate at a rather chilly -270 Celsius -- will smash into each other at a rate of 40 meters per second.

The information from these collisions will be collected in four particle detectors -- ATLAS, ALICE, CMS and LHCb. ATLAS, the largest detector ever built, measures 46 meters long and 25 meters high and weighs in the region of 7,000 tonnes.

What the scientists hope to unearth is the "God particle" -- the nickname given to the Higgs boson -- the idea forwarded by Professor Peter Higgs a theoretical physicist at Edinburgh University.

The Higgs boson attempts to explain how particles acquire their mass and if it is found to exist, when the experiments are completed in the LHC, it would validate the so-called Standard Model of physics -- a framework devised to explain the nature of particles and their interactions.

The LHC is expected to be firing on all cylinders sometime during 2008, by which time the question to end all questions -- how was the universe created? -- may be well on the way to being answered.


CERN's tunnels stretch beneath the border of France and Switzerland.


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