10 September 2008: the Large Hadron Collider is switched on for the first time

Peter Higgs and the large hadron collider
Peter Higgs and the large hadron collider

On this day in 2008, a lot of people woke up and ate their cornflakes under a cloud of worry. They were concerned that later in the day, the earth would be swallowed up into a black hole created accidentally by mad scientists in Switzerland, and we would all be crushed into nothingness.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, AKA Cern, was looking to confirm the existence of the world’s first celebrity sub-atomic particle, the theoretical Higgs boson, known to headline-writers the world over as the ‘God particle’. (A boson is one of two classes of particles in sub-atomic physics. The other is called a fermion.)

In very, very short, it was hoped that by discovering the Higgs boson, boffins could prove that the so-called ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics was correct, and life could carry on as normal.

To find it, Cern built the world’s biggest particle accelerator, a 27-km long ring of superconducting electromagnets, cooled to a temperature of -271.3°C. In it, particles would be fired at other particles at a speed approaching the speed of light. Scientists would then observe what happened, to see if a Higgs boson appeared.

And so, on 10 September, 2008, the Large Hadron Collider was switched on.

Some doom-mongers speculated that the smashing together of the particles would create a black hole that would grow uncontrollably, feeding on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn before swallowing the whole of the solar system and everyone in it.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. As Cern itself says, “LHC collisions present no danger and that there are no reasons for concern”.

Finally, after almost four years of research, the Higgs boson – or at least, a particle “consistent with” the Higgs boson – was found on 4 July 2012. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what everyone had expected, which just led to a lot more questions. Scientists are still trying to work out just what the existence of the Higgs boson actually tells us.