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Symposium abuzz with talk of particle accelerator

Researchers from all over the world gathered at Duke this week to share research and celebrate final developments on a state-of-the-art particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland.

During the 2006 Hadron Collider Physics Symposium, scientists have been buzzing about the machine that will be seven times more powerful than any contemporary accelerator and will be instrumental in aiding scientists' understanding of particles and the beginnings of the universe. The accelerator is slated for completion in 2007.

Ashutosh Kotwal, associate professor of physics and organizer of the symposium, said current research has raised questions such as what role gravity plays in quantum mechanics and why particles have mass in the first place.

"Maybe the answer to this lies in that there are additional dimensions to nature... many great scientists like Einstein thought about it but now it may be possible to know the answer," Kotwal said.

Kotwal teaches at Duke twice a week and spends five days a week in Chicago in order to head an experiment team of 700 individuals who work on the world's current largest particle accelerator at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Even with such a large staff, it often takes three to four months to interpret the results of an experiment, he said. Scientists expect that the new Swiss accelerator, by increasing the rate at which particles collide, will be able to cut that time in half.

A standard accelerator contains a "radio frequency cavity"-which Kotwal likened to a big box of mirrors facing each other that bounce a beam of light back and forth between them, essentially forever. Instead of light, however, the accelerator uses radio waves and exposes the particles to the energy these waves create.

The waves, in turn, give the particles energy, and, after millions of rotations, scientists eventually focus one stream of protons going clockwise and a stream of anti-protons going counterclockwise until they smash together at extremely high speeds, allowing observers to view the type of energy that is assumed to have been present during the Big Bang.

While the science may seem complicated-the conference itself hosted talks with names like: "W/Z Production and Asymmetries at the Tevatron" that discussed concepts like "coupling restraints" and "non-perturbative phenomenology"-Kotwal advised that the technical jargon should not detract from the fact that this technology has the potential "to change the very fabric of our lives."

"People didn't see how [quantum mechanics] would have any impact on our lives-it was all so strange-and then, in another 30 years, people started building electronics using quantum mechanics," Kotwal said. "Cell phones work completely on quantum mechanics... I imagine the kinds of things we discover today will have a very big influence in 50 years on all our daily lives."

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