One of the most significant moments in modern science will take place this week, when CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – starts up the world’s most powerful man-made particle accelerator.
On September 10, the first attempts will be made to circulate proton particles around the entire Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, in a gigantic 27km-circumference, underground tunnel on the French-Swiss border.
Once fully operational the LHC, which has been built over 10 years at the cost of several billion pounds, will recreate conditions that existed billionths of a second after time began, just after the Big Bang.
The eventual acceleration and collision of two beams, at an energy of 5 TeV per beam, is planned to take place by the end of 2008.
The project will seek answers to some of the deepest mysteries of the origins and workings of our universe, by searching for evidence for dark matter, extra dimensions, supersymmetry and the mechanism that gives mass to some particles but not others.
The UK is one of the biggest contributors to the LHC project, and through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds the UK particle physics programme including the CERN subscription, has contributed vital hardware, computing and scientific knowledge.
Professor Graham Shore, Head of the Department of Physics and Head of the Physics Theoretical Group at Swansea University, who has been at CERN in the last few weeks, said: "The successful commissioning of the LHC is a stunning achievement by the CERN accelerator teams.
“We now look forward to the first TeV collisions, which will allow us to test our theories of the fundamental laws of nature at higher energies than ever before."
Swansea University alumnus and Honorary Fellow Dr Lyndon Evans CBE will be at the centre of operations on this historic day, in his role as Director of the LHC project.
“It’s been a long haul, and we’re all eager to get the LHC research programme underway,” said Aberdare-born Dr Evans, who graduated from Swansea University with a first class degree in Physics in 1966, and was awarded his PhD from Swansea in 1970.
“Thanks to a fantastic team, both the clock-wise and counter-clockwise tests went without a hitch. We look forward to a resounding success when we make our first attempt to send a beam all the way around the LHC,” he added.
Dr Evans became an Honorary Fellow of the University in 2002, and was presented with his award by Professor Mike Charlton of the Physics Department.
He will return to the University this December, to give a lecture on the project to the South Wales branch of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA).
Professor Charlton said: “The whole of physics is waiting with baited breath for the scientific work at the LHC to begin.
"Swansea's strong and important connections with CERN continue to flourish, and we look forward in particular to Lyn’s return here for his BA lecture later in the year."
In July 2008, Swansea also honoured Professor Peter Higgs, the groundbreaking physicist who theorised the particle known as the Higgs Boson, which the LHC was built to find.
It was in the summer of 1964 that Professor Higgs developed his theory, which predicted the existence throughout space of a charged “condensate”, which renders massive all other particles passing through it. This, in turn, implied the existence of a new elementary particle, which today is known as the Higgs Boson.
The power and scope of Professor Higgs’ idea was quickly recognised by other theorists, and by 1967 the Higgs Boson was incorporated into what has become known as the Standard Model of Particle Physics.
Conferring an Honorary Fellowship to Professor Higgs at the Degree Ceremony for the School of Physical Sciences, Swansea University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard B Davies, said: “Professor Peter Higgs represents the epitome of world-class research excellence, for which Swansea University continually strives. “
“His breakthrough Higgs Boson theory is monumental in the field of particle physics research and it is truly a privilege that he can now be counted as one of Swansea’s Honorary Fellows.”
The next generation of Swansea Physicists will also have the opportunity to be involved with CERN, at what is undoubtedly one of the most exciting periods in its history.
PhD student Gregory Moraitis recently became the first UK university student to be awarded a highly prestigious EU studentship with CERN’s Theory Division.
Gregory, aged 27, will join the Theoretical Particle Physics Group on October 1, to work under the supervision of world leader in lattice gauge theories Professor Martin Luescher.
He said: “The timing could not be better. The world’s most ambitious particle physics experiment of all time is about to go live, and being there in person is certain to be an unforgettable experience.”
The LHC start-up will be webcast on Wednesday, September 10, starting at 8.30am (BST), through http://webcast.cern.ch.
For more information about the LHC project, visit CERN’s website at http://www.cern.ch/lhc-first-beam. Visit Swansea University's Physics Department for more information.