In the Douglas Adams novel, ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, two programmers named Lunkwill and Fook enter a small office which contained a small black panel. This panel was however linked to a computer the size of a city, specifically designed to be the greatest computer in the history of the universe – a computer named Deep Thought. When it awoke it asked, “”What is this great task for which I, Deep Thought, the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space have been called into existence?” Lunkwill and Fook glanced at each other in surprise as it dawned on them that Deep Thought described itself as only the second greatest computer. They then asked whether Deep Thought was greater than a long list of super computers, including “the Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard”. Deep thought merely scoffs at this suggestion, stating that it is just pocket calculator work for a computer of its greatness. Exasperated, Lunkwill and Fook finally ask “what is the problem?” Deep thought replies, “There is no problem, I am merely the second greatest computer in space and time. I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me!” It eventually turns out that this computer is the Earth itself, so advanced that it has biological life as part of its programming, and it sole purpose to provide a question to the answer to life, the universe and everything – which turns out to be 42!
If you have not read the book then I highly recommend it, but the reason I bring up the above is that we currently have a similar situation at the moment with our very own greatest experiment in the history of the Earth – the Large Hadron Collider built by CERN in Geneva. Opened on the 10th September 2008, the LHC is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, with a 27km ring of superconducting magnets designed to accelerate tiny particles to high speeds before smashing them into each other. It has already been a huge success, discovering a brand new particle in the Higgs Boson, which gives all other particles mass. It is an era defining discovery for science, made possible by an astounding piece of engineering. But what is to come afterwards? How do you follow the greatest experiment ever produced?
Well this has been the question for around 300 physicists and engineers, who met at a conference in Geneva at the start of the year. One suggestion is a next generation collider name TLEP, which stands for the Triple Large Electron Position collider. The Large Electron Position Collider (LEP) was a previous particle accelerator, and TLEP is designed to be three times the size, so its not just a clever name! Now TLEP has been predicted to have a circumference of between 80- 100km, and could smash protons together at energies of 100 TeV (terra electron volts), which make the LHC tiny in comparison. The current LHC has been colliding protons at 7TeV also, so the TLEP would be a huge step forward.
Other accelerators are being designed to analyse the higgs boson in more detail. The International Linear Collider (ILC) which will accelerate electrons and positrons to about 250GeV (giga electron volts) and smash them together in much ‘cleaner’ collisions than proton-proton collisions. This will be 31km in circumference and predicted to be a cost of $8 billion dollars, with Japan a leading contender to host it. CERN is also working on the Compact Linear Collider (CLIC), which could operate at 3 TeV.
The LHC still has a predicted life of at least 20 years yet, but completed designs for these next generation colliders could be with us in the next decade. It will be interesting to see how large these experiments will get to.