Page last updated at 18:15 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 19:15 UK

British mark scientific milestone

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

Professor Jordan Nash
Professor Jordan Nash hailed a "spectacular start" to the experiment

Cern scientists in the Alps have hailed the momentous scientific milestone which will recreate the conditions of the Big Bang. But celebrations are also under way in the UK.

Spectators might have been cradling coffee cups rather than champagne flutes at a specially arranged "Big Bang Breakfast" at Central Hall in Westminster, but when the £5bn machine designed to smash particles together with "cataclysmic force" swung into action on the Swiss-French border, the excitement was palpable.

Scientists eagerly swapped laptops, huddling over "fresh off the LHC" data, members of the Science and Technology Facilities Council clustered around a live satellite feed and a select bunch of school children chattered excitedly.

The Large Hadron Collider - which scientists hope will shed light on fundamental questions in physics - completed its first circuit of the underground tunnel just before 0930 BST.

Professor Jordan Nash, from Imperial College, said the enormous experiment had got off to "a spectacular start" which "couldn't have gone any better".

"This is the biggest leap in particle physics for a generation, since the 1970s or early 80s. We've been preparing for this for a long time - it's an extremely big, expensive and ambitious project," he said.

But now the "low energy" proton beam had been successfully sent around the 27km-long tunnel, the challenge will be to create the collisions and intensify energy levels, he said.

Dr Valerie Gibson
Dr Valerie Gibson said the switch-on represented 20 years worth of work

Dr Valerie Gibson, who has headed up the UK's LHCb project from the Cambridge University for more than four years, said the successful switch-on marked "a very big day".

"This will lead to huge new discoveries - it's the biggest development since man went to the moon."

The LHCb - which is one of four detectors "the size of cathedrals" monitoring the collisions - will try to investigate what happened to "missing" anti-matter.

Once the two beams, steered in opposite directions around the LHC, cross paths and create collisions, it will recreate conditions that existed billionths of a second after time began.

'Real world'

It is then that scientists hope some of the deepest mysteries of the origins and working of our universe will be discovered.

But Dr Gibson said we should not expect to see changes for some years to come.

Becky Parker, Head of Physics at the Simon Langton Grammar School
Ms Parker was made an MBE for her work in science and education in July

"When the electron was discovered, no-one anticipated the electrical technology and the kind of communications we have today - we don't know exactly what spin-offs will happen, but this is the start of something that will last 20 years.

"This experiment is going to provide a huge amount of data," she added.

But it was not just scientists working on the LHC that were excited.

The biggest buzz in the room was being made by a group of school children and their teacher Becky Parker.


"Today is the start of an enormous collaboration to answer huge questions about the universe and how students can be involved in the future," said Ms Parker, head of physics at Simon Langton Grammar School.

"It's an opportunity to see how physics applied in the real world," said 17-year-old sixth former Rachel O'Leary, who is going to study physics at university next year.

Young scientists from Simon Langton Grammar School
The students all plan to study physics, maths or engineering at university

Ms Parker, who was made an MBE for her services to science and education in July 2008, has set up a laboratory called the Langton Star Centre in the school's grounds to "expose and immerse students in real physics".

Six of her students have reached the final of a British National Space Centre competition which challenged them to design an experiment to fly on a satellite into space.

They visited Nasa and Cern scientists in Geneva earlier this year in a bid to develop their new cosmic ray detector, which they call Lucid.

"We hope it will be able to help protect against electronic damage in low-earth orbit, measure abundances of light elements in the atmosphere and neutron backsplash, by monitoring the amount of cosmic rays hitting the earth's atmosphere," said 17-year-old Adam Sandey.

Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector
A computer generated image of the cosmic ray detector has been created

The team have created a National Cosmic Ray Schools grid, consisting of more than 30 schools, to share information and data from the satellite so students can do real research from high quality data.

Ms Parker said it was fantastic for the students to work together, be put alongside real physicists and work on groundbreaking concepts.

"I am so excited for them. I want everyone to see how exciting physics can be," she said.

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