The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN pushed its revamped power to new limits as lead-ion collisions surpassed 1PeV, or a quadrillion electron volts for the first time. The lead ion collisions are an attempt to recreate the conditions that existed just after the Big Bang. For those inclined to think that the physicists in Switzerland are “playing God” the latest report makes it sound like they’re doing a pretty good job at it: “the concentration of so much energy into the tiny nuclear volume is enough to establish truly colossal densities and temperatures about a quarter of a million times those at the core of the sun,” CERN physicist John Jowett reports.
Jowett is writing to explain the “new energy frontier for heavy ions.” But the leap to a quadrillion electron volts, while auspicious, is also a little misleading if not examined closely. The audacious quadrillion number can be produced because the LHC is colliding “heavy ions.” So since the lead “nuclei contain the electric charges of 82 protons, the machine can accelerate them to 82 times the energy.” The results that physicists celebrate will also force the CERN organization to go on another PR explanatory campaign, trying to assuage those who believe that the experiments are capable of “destroying the universe.” Fighting doomsday scenarios is as hard as colliding protons some days. CERN has been very active in its outreach ever since the Higgs boson revelation first focused greater attention on the organization in 2013.