The World's Next Atom Smasher May Be 60 Miles Long and Run Until 2075

Big Science grows ever bigger, at least in the minds of physicists. 
Ernest Lawrence's 11-inch cyclotron (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

The particles inside Ernest Lawrence's 1931 cyclotron particle accelerator traveled just 11 inches inside the perimeter of what he called his "proton-merry-go-round." The initial size was tiny, but Lawrence's strategy was, as we might say now, scalable: If atoms could be accelerated a bit inside a device with a diameter of 11 inches, then imagine how fast one could make them fly if a bigger device was built. They quickly built a 27-inch version, then a 60-incher a few years later. 

Most simple histories of physics date the birth of Big Science to Lawrence's cyclotron. Physics needed big machines. There were things that a big machine could test that no people working unaided or with a smaller machine could. And that's never stopped being true. Bigger equals more energy equals better atom smashing. 

Which is why the Large Hadron Collider opened to such fanfare a few years ago. It's the largest particle accelerator in the world, tucked underground near Geneva. The tunnel through which particles travel is now 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) long. Lawrence's cyclotron could reach energies exceeding one million electron volts. The LHC turns up the dial to 14 trillion electron volts. That's an improvement of seven orders of magnitude. 

So, naturally, the BBC reports, physicists want to go bigger! Scientists at CERN, the European scientific agency that runs the LHC, are kicking around the idea of a 100-kilometer (62-mile) machine that would fully encircle Geneva. It might take 30 years to build, so that's why they're kicking off the next-gen thing just five years into the LHC's working lifespan. 

The larger machine could provide an eightfold improvement in the energy of the collisions. Maybe, the scientists hope, it could help us probe dark matter or get ever closer to the conditions present during the Big Bang. 

If the new collider gets built, it will probably be running in 2075. Big Science is also Long Science. 

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