The Large Hadron Collider is smashing atoms and answering questions about our universe

A huge atom smasher is pushing the boundaries of science in Europe – and Hong Kong is helping

Wong Tsui-kai |

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Chinese University of Hong Kong students check out the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, during a summer exchange programme.

Physics isn’t all boring textbooks and lectures. One of the latest devices to take the science world by storm is a particle collider. Also known as an atom smasher, it’s a machine that accelerates particles to a very high speed then crashes them together and analyses the products of these collisions.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, is currently the largest and most powerful particle collider in the world. Built and operated by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), it is where some of the most exciting developments in physics are happening. And Hong Kong has representatives doing research there, too. If you wish you could see this huge device for yourself but feel Switzerland is a bit far, don’t worry, the science museum in Hong Kong has an exhibition on the LHC until May 25.

The LHC has helped answer a lot of questions about the universe, including one about the Higgs mechanism. The Higgs mechanism is a theory that explains why particles have mass, and suggests the existence of what scientists call the Higgs Boson, a tiny particle which proves the Higgs mechanism. The search for the Higgs Boson was an attempt to prove this theory. It’s like if you want to prove the existence of dinosaurs, you might have a theory that suggests they did exist, but you need to find a fossil to prove it.

The Higgs Boson is the equivalent of the fossil, and proves that tiny particles have mass. And all of
these findings were possible thanks to the LHC.

But this science seems far away and not very applicable. Professor Luis Flores of Chinese University admits the science isn’t useful yet, but he is optimistic.

“Back when electrons were discovered, there was no useful purpose for them, either. But imagine what life would be like without electronics,” he says.

So that’s why research is important, but as with any major leaps in knowledge, people worry that science will go too far. There has been talk of how the experiments at the LHC could create black holes and destroy the planet. But Flores says this won’t happen.

“There is no risk. We know the smaller the black holes are, the faster they disappear. While the LHC has the highest energy density seen so far, it’s still very small. So even if we did make them, they would disappear very quickly.”

As well as professors, Hong Kong also sent Chinese University physics students to Geneva last summer.

Law Tak-shun, a second year PHd student, admired the work culture in Switzerland. “They have an almost perfect work-life balance. They work hard and pull all nighters like we do, but while we usually finish our work then go to sleep, they might relax and go to a bar and continue discussing physics. It was nice to be able to work on physics in both a relaxed and formal environment.”

But it’s not all fun and games, as advanced physics is tough. Mak
Sze-ning, a final year student, notes: “Secondary physics is very different from university. There’s a lot more maths and it’s less intuitive.”

In the long term, Hong Kong has the ability to work with massive, international projects such as Cern.

But Professor Chu Ming-chung of Chinese University feels that attitudes towards science research in Hong Kong need to change first. “There is a mentality of ‘Oh, internationalisation. That’s cool.’ But people aren’t supporting the research. But change will come when students start to contribute and put in their own effort.”