Astronomers from the BICEP collaboration announced on 17 March that, using a modest-sized telescope near the South Pole, they had detected gravity waves that have been rippling through the cosmos since the Big Bang. This is extraordinary news for our understanding of gravity generally, and for our understanding of how the universe probably evolved during the earliest moments of its history.
Last month an international team of physicists and astronomers working with the Planck satellite released a remarkable set of baby photos: images of the universe taken with light emitted when it was a mere 378,000 years old, less than 0.003 per cent of its present age.
I wasn't the only person in the United States who counted an extra reason to enjoy the parades and festivities this week. The announcement at CERN that two independent experimental groups had each collected convincing evidence that the long-sought Higgs particle had been found prompted the physicist and blogger Matthew Strassler to declare 4 July ‘IndependHiggs Day’. I couldn't imagine a better reason for fireworks.
One of the T-shirts you’ll see quite often around MIT says: ‘Speed limit: 186,000 miles per second. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.’ The speed in question is the speed of light, and the law comes from Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Relativity is predicated on the notion that the speed of light is unsurpassable, and most of modern physics is predicated on relativity. So this morning’s announcement that a team of physicists at CERN may have measured tiny particles, known as neutrinos, travelling faster than light has the potential to eclipse all other news that ever has or may yet come out of CERN – Higgs particles, supersymmetry and all else combined. The key word, though, is ‘potential’. By the physicists’ own reckoning, their results require a lot more scrutiny before anyone concludes that physics has one fewer leg to stand on.
Last week a team of physicists based at CERN announced that they had coaxed a handful of elusive antihydrogen atoms into existence: 38 of them, to be exact. Simply creating antimatter is no longer newsworthy; a competing team fabricated tens of thousands of antihydrogen atoms using a different method back in 2002. What’s new about the latest experiment – the result of five years’ work – is that the fragile atoms stuck around for as long as 172 milliseconds: nearly one-fifth of a second, about half as long as the blink of an eye. And when it comes to atoms of antimatter, that is an astonishingly long time.
Fourteen years in the making, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva spun to life in September 2008, sending the first batches of protons whirling around its 27-kilometre track at very nearly the speed of light. The goal was to smash the revved-up protons into each other at tremendous energies, mimicking conditions that would have been found moments after the big bang and unleashing new particles and interactions for physicists to scrutinise. The machine came screeching to a halt a few days later. One of the tanks holding liquid helium (to keep the superconducting magnets ultracold) had ruptured. No one could get close to the affected area to inspect the damage or begin repairs until the entire region had been taken off-line and ever-so-slowly warmed up. Fourteen months and £24 million later, the tank had been repaired, new equipment installed to bolster the LHC’s resistance to similar spikes in electrical current, and the entire machine cooled back down to its operating temperature.