Why do particle physicists need those enormous colliders? Why does it take a big, expensive, atom-smashing machine to discover what happens on the smallest scales?
A machine like the Large Hadron Collider seems pretty complicated. But at its heart, it’s basically just a huge microscope.
If you’ve ever used a microscope in school, you probably had one with a light switch. Forget to turn on the light, and you spend a while confused about why you can’t see anything before you finally remember to flick the switch. Just like seeing something normally, seeing something with a microscope means that light is bouncing off that thing and hitting your eyes. Because of this, microscopes are limited by the wavelength of the light that they use. Try to look at something much smaller than that wavelength and the image will be too blurry to understand.
To see smaller details then, people use light with smaller wavelengths. Using massive X-ray producing machines called synchrotrons, scientists can study matter on the sub-nanometer scale. To go further, scientists can take advantage of wave-particle duality, and use electrons instead of light. The higher the energy of the electrons, the smaller their wavelength. The best electron microscopes can see objects measured in angstroms, not just nanometers.
A particle collider pushes this even further. The Large Hadron Collider accelerates protons until they have 6.5 Tera-electron-Volts of energy. That might be an unfamiliar type of unit, but if you’ve seen it before you can run the numbers, and estimate that this means the LHC can sees details below the attometer scale. That’s a quintillionth of a meter, or a hundred million times smaller than an atom.
A microscope isn’t just light, though, and a collider isn’t just high-energy protons. If it were, we could just wait and look at the sky. So-called cosmic rays are protons and other particles that travel to us from outer space. These can have very high energy: protons with similar energy to those in the LHC hit our atmosphere every day, and rays have been detected that were millions of times more powerful.
People sometimes ask why we can’t just use these cosmic rays to study particle physics. While we can certainly learn some things from cosmic rays, they have a big limitation. They have the “light” part of a microscope, but not the “lens”!
A microscope lens magnifies what you see. Starting from a tiny image, the lens blows it up until it’s big enough that you can see it with your own eyes. Particle colliders have similar technology, using their particle detectors. When two protons collider inside the LHC, they emit a flurry of other particles: photons and electrons, muons and mesons. Each of these particles is too small to see, let alone distinguish with the naked eye. But close to the collision there are detector machines that absorb these particles and magnify their signal. A single electron hitting one of these machines triggers a cascade of more and more electrons, in proportion to the energy of the electron that entered the machine. In the end, you get a strong electrical signal, which you can record with a computer. There are two big machines that do this at the Large Hadron Collider, each with its own independent scientific collaboration to run it. They’re called ATLAS and CMS.
So studying small scales needs two things: the right kind of “probe”, like light or protons, and a way to magnify the signal, like a lens or a particle detector. That’s hard to do without a big expensive machine…unless nature is unusually convenient. One interesting possibility is to try to learn about particle physics via astronomy. In the Big Bang particles collided with very high energy, and as the universe has expanded since then those details have been magnified across the sky. That kind of “cosmological collider” has the potential to teach us about physics at much smaller scales than any normal collider could reach. A downside is that, unlike in a collider, we can’t run the experiment over and over again: our “cosmological collider” only ran once. Still, if we want to learn about the very smallest scales, some day that may be our best option.