by Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman
Physicists are carrying out a fascinating experiment in a tunnel near Geneva to detect a predicted (but not yet discovered) particle. A huge ring shaped particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), has been built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The accelerator lies between 170 ft to 600 ft below ground, has a circumference of 17 miles, and has 9,300 superconducting magnets cooled with liquid helium to a temperature of -271.3 0C, just about 20C above the absolute zero.
This array of magnets accelerates the two streams of protons in opposite directions to a speed very close to the speed of light (99.999996% of the speed of light!). This is the most expensive single machine ever built by man, costing US$ 8 billion contributed by 26 countries. Some 5000 scientists and engineers from many countries have been involved in its construction and operation.
When the two streams of protons collide at these huge speeds, the new particles formed will be detected. It is hoped that conditions that existed at the birth of the universe – a fraction of a second after the Big Bang – will thus be recreated.
One of the most sought after particles in this experiment is the Higgs Boson, also known as the “God particle” because it is thought to be the godfather of all other particles, responsible for endowing them with weight, or mass. Only 4% of the universe is visible. The rest is contributed by the mysterious forces of dark matter (22% of its mass) and dark energy (about 74% of its mass-energy). The results of the LHC experiments, hopefully, should shed light on some of the basic building blocks of matter.
Are We All Made up of Tiny Strings?
Arguably the two greatest breakthroughs in physics were quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Quantum mechanics tells us about the fuzziness of nature on the atomic scale while Einstein’s theory of general relativity addresses the physics involved at the macro level (such as planetary motions, gravitation etc).
However while quantum mechanics works well at the atomic level it cannot be applied at the macro level. Similarly Einstein’s theory of general relativity cannot be applied at the atomic level, clearly emphasizing the need to have a unifying theory – a “theory of everything”. To unify these two great frontiers of physics Ed Whitten from USA proposed that the smallest building blocks of matter may not be atoms but much smaller loops or strings which vibrate in a space with 10 or 11 dimensions. We may therefore be made up of tiny dancing strings – difficult, if not impossible, to prove!
Faster than Light?
Swiss physicists have carried out a fascinating experiment that may open up exotic possibilities of teleportation (have you seen Star Trek?). A pair of photons was sent on fiber-optic cables to two villages on two opposite sides of Geneva, one to each village.
When one photon was measured on its arrival, the other was instantaneously affected, although they were 11 miles apart. This spooky phenomenon of “quantum entanglement” has never been observed before at such large distances, though it has been recognized for a long time.
If one assumes that one photon sent an ultra-fast signal to its partner, then that signal would have had to travel at 10,000 times the speed of light, impossible according to modern concepts of physics. The physics behind these “ghostly” interactions at long distances is not well understood.
Turning Glass Windows into Solar Panels
A Norwegian company Ensol, in collaboration with the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester in the UK, has developed an exciting new thin film solar cell technology that allows the solar cells to be sprayed onto glass or other surfaces.
Glass windows and even walls or roof tiles are then transformed into electricity generators, and provide the power required in the building. As the material sprayed is transparent, the glass windows only develop a slight tint after spraying. The film comprises metal nanoparticles embedded in a transparent composite matrix.
It is expected that the material will develop the same level of efficiency (about 20%) as of standard solar cells but will be much cheaper to produce and more convenient to use.
Another competing technology recently developed by Kyosemi Corporation involves the use of Sphelar solar cells that can also be used in windows.
These were demonstrated at the PV Expo 2010 conference in Tokyo earlier this year. They comprise solidified silicon drops that are embedded into glass and can collect light from any direction as well as from both sides of the glass, thereby making them highly efficient for energy production.
These Sphelar cells can also be embedded into flexible materials, thus allowing dome shaped surfaces to be produced.
This article has been taken from Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman’s The Wondrous World of Science (2009-2012)