By now you’ve probably heard the news that the Large Hadron Collider has set a new record for the highest energy particle collisions in an accelerator: 1.18 TeV (breaking the previous record of ~1TeV set by the Tevatron). To put that in some perspective, releasing all of the energy in a proton (the particles being collided) would only 1/1200th as much. More concretely, it means that each of the protons slamming into one another is moving at 99.99998% the speed of light.
The “wow factor” should be taken with a grain of salt. I can think of at least 3 reasons to put away your party hats, and put a hold on the Higgs particle action figures.
- High energy collisions means we make high-energy particles, but…
As Einstein told us, E=mc2, which means that with higher energy collisions, we can make higher energy particles. Even the heaviest particle ever discovered, the top quark, only has a mass of about 170 GeV (0.17 TeV), and the Higgs Boson is roughly in the same range. The best estimates are from 120-200 GeV (with a hole in the possible values, thanks the Fermilab’s Tevatron).
However, 1.18TeV collisions does not mean that the LHC is producing 1.18TeV particles once the dust settles. Protons are composite particles and their constituents, the quarks and gluons inside, each only carry small fractions of the total energy. This, incidentally, is why Fermilab’s Tevatron (the “Tev” is for TeV, after all) didn’t find the Higgs Boson (probably).
- The Universe will still remain the champ
We puny humans may have gotten up to 1.18 TeV, but even once the LHC gets up to top energies (14TeV), the Universe will remain a bigger, badder particle accelerator.
Here’s another reason that we shouldn’t hurt our arms patting ourselves on the back: The universe does a much better job in the form of cosmic rays. To give you an idea, approximately 100 million charged particles with energies greater than 1000 TeV hit earth’s atmosphere every second.
- Moreover, energy isn’t everything, as John Conway points out in Cosmic Variance:
Now, let’s see if the mainstream media can start to distinguish “power” from “energy”! After all, power is total energy per unit time. All you need to do to get more power is to put more particles into the machine…the Tevatron, by this measure, is still far more powerful, with many thousands of times more particles per beam. And there are much lower-energy machines with higher total beam power. In fact it will be a while before the LHC becomes “the world’s most powerful accelerator”.
True enough, but regardless of total beam power, once the LHC gets up to it’s ultimate 14 TeV collision energy (about 12 times the current), we should see some really cool new physics.