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Biggest ‘Big Bang Machine’ switched on
Chapter 3: After 14 years of work, atom-smasher comes to life amid hoopla
By Alan Boyle
Science editor
updated 10:44 a.m. ET, Wed., Sept. 10, 2008

After 14 years of preparation, a new scientific wonder of the world opened for business Wednesday with the official startup of Europe's Large Hadron Collider.

The $10 billion particle accelerator is the biggest, most expensive science machine on earth, designed to probe mysteries ranging from dark matter and missing antimatter to the existence of extra, unseen dimensions in space.

Scientists, journalists and dignitaries watched from the control room at Europe's CERN particle-physics center on the French-Swiss border, near Geneva, as beams of protons were sent all the way around the collider's 17-mile (27-kilometer) underground ring of supercooled pipes for the first time.

"Today is a great day for CERN," the organization's director general, Robert Aymar, told the crowd in the control room as the startup process began.

Controllers checked the alignment of the beam as barriers were removed at each stage of the route. Applause and shouts greeted every report of progress along the 330-foot-deep (100-meter-deep) tunnel — climaxing when the beam made its first full clockwise circuit, less than an hour after it was turned on.

"It’s a fantastic moment," Lyn Evans, the project leader for the Large Hadron Collider, said afterward. "We can now look forward to a new era of understanding about the origins and evolution of the universe.”

As champagne flowed in the control room, former CERN chief Luciano Maiani noted that the money spent on the project over 14 years was a mere fraction of the $40 billion that China spent for this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. "These are the Olympics of science," CERN spokeswoman Paola Catapano replied during a Webcast interview.

Hours later, the LHC's counterclockwise proton beam made its first-ever circuit. The next steps in the process will be to fine-tune the beams and bring them together for their first collisions. It will take weeks for the collider to go through its commissioning process, and the LHC isn't expected to reach full power until next year.

‘First Beam,’ first celebration
Even though the first scientific results are months away, CERN used Wednesday's "First Beam" events as a high-profile occasion for celebration. For the more than 10,000 scientists, engineers and other workers involved in the project, the Large Hadron Collider represents a revolutionary new research opportunity as well as an unprecedented engineering achievement.

"The combination of the size, scale, complexity and technology — well, the comparison I always use is the pyramids," Peter Limon, a U.S. physicist from Fermilab who played a part in building the device, said during a pre-startup walkthrough. "This is what we do today comparable to the pyramids of 4,000 years ago."

The LHC is designed to do things the pyramid's builders never imagined.

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