Big Science and a Big Laser

Scientific research is generally rather expensive and requires specialized equipment and real estate, but some projects are bigger than others. Physics World has a pdf of a supplement to their magazine describing a few giant-sized physics facilities currently working (like the LHC at CERN) or in the works; it’s pretty interesting to look over and see the huge ambition at play, and the frontiers of science. 

One of the proposed projects, the Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility, is the subject of a Telegraph article today. It’s going to include the most powerful laser in the world by orders of magnitude, strong enough to tear apart the virtual particles that are theorized to appear and disappear in a vacuum, and thus be able to learn more about them.

From the Telegraph:

Contrary to popular belief, a vacuum is not devoid of material but in fact fizzles with tiny mysterious particles that pop in and out of existence, but at speeds so fast that no one has been able to prove they exist.

The Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility would produce a laser so intense that scientists say it would allow them to reveal these particles for the first time by pulling this vacuum “fabric” apart.

They also believe it could even allow them to prove whether extra-dimensions exist.

“This laser will be 200 times more powerful than the most powerful lasers that currently exist,” said Professor John Collier, a scientific leader for the ELI project and director of the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, Oxfordshire…

The ELI Ultra-High Field laser is due to be complete by the end of the decade and will cost an estimated £1 billion. Although the location for the facility will not be decided until next year, the UK is among several European countries in the running to host it…

The Ultra-High Field laser will be made up of 10 beams, each twice as powerful as the prototype lasers, allowing it to produce 200 petawatts of power – more than 100,000 times the power of the world’s combined electricity production – for less than a trillionth of a second…

It will cause the mysterious particles of matter and antimatter thought to make up a vacuum to be pulled apart, allowing scientists to detect the tiny electrical charges they produce.

These “ghost particles”, as they are known, normally annihilate one another as soon as they appear, but by using the laser to pull them apart, physicists believe they will be able to detect them.

Cool. It’s funny to think that the solution to the most subtle universal mysteries are solved by building giant crazy lasers and shooting stuff – it sounds like a solution from the mind of a 12-year-old boy. Or look at supercolliders like the LHC, where the solution instead is to smash particles together really really hard. Then again, those are descriptions tailored for mass consumption, so they leave out the 99.99% of the work that’s not quite so exciting – but still, at least parts of it are pretty exciting. 

If you looked at the supplement about “big science” from Physics World, you may have noticed that all of the projects they discuss are mainly or entirely European, which is kind of disappointing. It should be clear why science can be damn expensive, but if our continent doesn’t step its game up it looks like it’s going to fall behind, at least in this realm.


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