Could we ever study particle physics in a more elegant fashion than just smashing atoms? © Getty Images

Could we ever study particle physics in a more elegant fashion than just smashing atoms?

CERN's Large Hadron Collider is a very sophisticated bit of kit, but the theory behind it is basically just 'crashing atoms into each other' at ridiculously high speeds.

Asked by: Sol Seyum, Fife

Advertisement

I doubt it, although particle physicists would love to find a cheaper way to investigate what goes on inside the atom. It’s all a matter of the energy needed to separate the components of the atom so that their individual properties can be measured. The only really effective way to generate enough energy is to smash atoms and/or sub-atomic particles into each other.

The first experiments were performed in 1919 by Ernest Rutherford, who bombarded nitrogen gas with natural-particles (positively charged helium nuclei) emitted from radium, and showed that protons were produced from the disintegration of the nitrogen nuclei. Later experiments used charged particles that had been accelerated by electric fields to high kinetic energies to release more and more tightly bound particles from the nucleus.

The most famous current machine is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN on the Swiss-French border, where two beams of protons – or lead ions – are sent in opposite directions around a 27km-long, ring-shaped tunnel, to collide at near the speed of light with energies similar to those that occurred in the Big Bang.


Advertisement

Subscribe to BBC Focus magazine for fascinating new Q&As every month and follow @sciencefocusQA on Twitter for your daily dose of fun science facts.