Page last updated at 07:15 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 08:15 UK

Life, the Universe and Scotland

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Inside the Large Hadron Collider (Pic: Cern)
The LHC is a vast and complicated feat of engineering

Scotland has been playing a key role in an ambitious effort to reveal how the Universe works.

Built 100m beneath the French-Swiss border, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is due to start work later this year.

The LHC will recreate conditions moments after the Big Bang, by colliding particles at super-fast speeds.

Scientists from the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow are closely involved with the LHC.

But even Lewis on the Western Isles and the Cairngorms could boast links.

A myriad of experiments aimed at answering complex scientific questions and theories will be run during the collisions.

Among of the most important will be to find the most sought-after particle in physics.

It is an exciting time. Either you will see the Higgs boson or frustratingly you don't, but that will mean more questions and theories
Alan Walker
University of Edinburgh

The hypothetical Higgs boson, dubbed by some as the "God particle", is fundamental to understanding the Universe but has yet to be detected.

It takes its name from Professor Peter Higgs, a retired University of Edinburgh scientist.

Following a weekend walking in the Cairngorms in 1964, he returned to his laboratory and told colleagues he had just experienced his "one big idea" and now had an answer to the mystery of how matter in the Universe got its mass.

If LHC finds the Higgs boson, it could earn the Scottish scientist a nomination for the Nobel Prize.

Staff from the University of Edinburgh will be carrying out studies on matter and antimatter at two of the collider's four detectors, but they will not be actively involved in the hunt for the Higgs boson.

However, their colleagues from Glasgow will be.

Alan Walker, of the Particle Physics Experiments Group at Edinburgh's School of Physics, said it would be a win-win situation even if the Higgs boson was not found.

He said: "It is an exciting time. Either you will see the Higgs boson or frustratingly you don't, but that will mean more questions and theories."

On the face of it, the brain-aching complexity of the LCH and what it has been built at huge costs to do offer little benefits to people outside the scientific community.

However, Scottish-based scientists involved said the technology that had to be invented for it could have wide-reaching impacts in the future.

Alison Bates, of University of Glasgow (Pic: Science and Technology Facilities Council)
Alison Bates, one of the University of Glasgow team involved

Breakthroughs in physics have previously made possible the invention of MRI scanners.

The construction of the huge tunnel needed for the collider has also led to advances in civil engineering.

But Mr Walker said the gains in answering big questions should not be dismissed.

He said: "This is important to our culture.

"I don't know how true if this story is, but on a visit to a particle collider President George Bush asked: 'What will this do for the defence of this country?'

"The scientist said: 'It will make it worth defending'."

Dr Chris Parkes is among the University of Glasgow LHC team and regularly works from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) laboratory near Geneva.

With a mission to find out how the Universe works, Cern is responsible for the LHC.

It features in Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's detective novel Angels and Demons, in which a secret society bent on destroying the Vatican using an antimatter bomb.

In the story, the antimatter is stolen from Cern.

The Glasgow scientists are gearing up for detective investigations of their own and will help monitor the Atlas detector which in turn will assist in the search for the Higgs boson.

Dr Parkes said: "Atlas is the largest detector. It is enormous, nothing like it has ever been built.

"The theory is that without the Higgs boson all particles would be without mass. It is one final piece of the puzzle, the missing item that has never been discovered."

The main reason most people come into this subject is curiosity
Dr Chris Parkes
University of Glasgow

Another of the Glasgow team, Caitriana Nicholson, from Lewis on the Western Isles, worked on the Grid - a network of computer bases scattered all over the world but linked together to process the vast volume of data from the experiments.

She said: "I guess it is kind of pushing the boundaries of what has been done before.

"There are a whole lot of things people are just figuring out as they go along, one being how to handle security with people all over the world logging on to someone else's computer to access the data."

The Grid could eventually be put to use for medical research purposes.

And there is a precedent for Cern leading the way in IT.

In 1989, computer consultant Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while working there.

But like Mr Walker, Dr Parkes was keen to highlight the value to physics of the work that will be done at LHC.

He said: "The main reason most people come into this subject is curiosity.

"The LHC is important from the point of view of pushing knowledge of mankind forward and trying to find out what the Universe is made of and what its building blocks are."

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