Even as India secures its historic entry into the global nuclear supply arrangement, it has another major event to celebrate in the coming days — its participation in the mankind’s biggest scientific experiment which starts on Wednesday at the Geneva-France countryside.
If all goes well, the experiment will unravel the mysteries of the universe, particularly the very moment that led to the creation of time and space, a la the Big Bang.
Despite not being a member of CERN, the European nuclear research organisation, India made a significant contribution as an observer state to the build-up of the $9 billion experiment. Scores of Indian scientists and other professionals in nuclear and other material sciences took part in select areas of setting up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) machine over the last 20 years.
The LHC is at the heart of the experiment that will contribute to the knowing of the unknown in the formation of the universe. “The privilege to participate in the 21st century’s biggest scientific experiment and the modest role played in setting up the LHC and experiments are indeed major achievements for India,” said Archana Sharma, staff scientist at CERN.
Built under 100 metres of rock and sandstone, the LHC is a giant machine that will work at full tilt by driving two beams of particles in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions around a specially constructed underground 27 km ring at almost the speed of light, i.e., 299,792,458 metres/second. Each beam will complete 11,245 laps of the machine per second.
When each particle — proton — collides with another proton coming in the opposite direction, it would result in a collision creating mass from energy via the famous Einstein equation in E = Mc2 — the mother of all creations of space.
“Within a second (after the Big Bang), the super-hot universe expanded and cooled dramatically, its temperatures falling from a few trillion to a few billion degrees,” observed Simon Singh, the author of the book Big Bang.
Scientists at CERN are now recreating that very second after all matter and energy, which were hitherto condensed, exploded at that very moment of the Big Bang. There are four major experiments that will be conducted at four points around the ring where the beams will be directed into head-on collisions and India is participating in the CMS experiment and the Alice experiment.
The CMS explores into the next developments in the world of physics, and more importantly, into the elusive Higgs boson particle — popularised as the God particle — that explains the origin of mass. The Alice experiment will study what happened when the super-hot universe expanded within a second after its creation 13 billion years ago, especially the protons, equivalent to hydrogen nuclei, reacted with other particles in a next few minutes to form light nuclei such as helium.
“The ratio of hydrogen to helium in the universe was largely fixed within these first few minutes, and is consistent with what we see today,” said Singh.
The LHC will search for all those extra dimensions through giant detectors that will examine the shower particle debris. Besides, the experiment might also create “dark matter” which is currently present in the universe. Scientists had calculated that about 23 per cent of the universe is dark matter, 73 per cent dark energy and 4 per cent ordinary matter.
“It is once in a generation experiment, and for 20 years, all the fine details have gone into conceiving this gigantic experiment,” Archana Sharma told Business Standard. “For years to come, we will see several results emanating from this experiment at CERN that will advance the understanding of several unknown factors in universe,” she said.
Indian research establishments including the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bhaba Atomic Research Centre, Saha Institute, and Punjab University were involved in providing software and quality-testing services of detectors.
“To study and view the experiments from 70 million channels, you need awesome computing infrastructure and TIFR is involved in addressing some of the software requirements,” Sharma said, suggesting that India contributed about $25 million towards the LHC project.
The LHC project also generated some legal challenges and led to fears about the possible creation of a black hole that would wreck the planet. But the attempts to stop the machine from experimenting were dismissed in courts.