It is afternoon in the control room of the Atlas particle detector, the biggest and most complex system of its kind. Prof. Giora Minkenberg of the Weizmann Institute is examining the tracks of a few muons 100 deep meters in the ground, which were picked up by the apparatus. Minkenberg points out the path of the muons, elementary particles that bear a negative charge, a heavy version of an electron.
"These are plain muons," he explains. "They are from the cosmic radiation reaching the earth. They were picked up in our experiment just by chance."
But if scientists identify a Higgs Boson (or "God particle") by the muons it breaks up into, this will be the key to proving, or disproving, the standard theory guiding nuclear physics.
International physicists at the vast underground complex near Geneva inaugurated a 20-year project on Wednesday that will try to reenact the Big Bang, in an attempt to explain the origins of the universe and how it came to harbor life.
In a giant machine called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, at the CERN research center straddling the Franco-Swiss border just outside Geneva, scientists plan to smash particles together to create a small-scale reenactment of the event that kicked off the cosmos.
The LHC will use giant magnets housed in cathedral-size caverns to fire beams of energy particles around a 27-km tunnel where they will collide at close to the speed of light. Computers will record what happens each time, and the vast store of material gathered will be analyzed by some 10,000 scientists around the globe for clues on what came next.
Scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, will pursue concepts such as "dark matter," "dark energy," extra dimensions and, most of all, the Higgs Boson "God particle" believed to have made it all possible.
"The LHC was conceived to radically change our vision of the universe," said CERN's French Director-General Robert Aymar. "Whatever discoveries it brings, mankind's understanding of our world's origins will be greatly enriched."
Minkenberg, 61, divides his time between CERN and Weizmann. He has been conducting experiments with CERN for over 20 years. Now he spends his time running from building to building in last-minute preparations for the launch, and smokes his pipe between the meetings. He is the head of the Israeli team, consisting of over 50 scientists, including students. Other members of the Israeli team include Prof. Ehud Duchovni and Prof. Eilam Gross from Weizmann, along with others from Tel Aviv University and the Technion.
CERN scientists have been at pains to deny suggestions by some critics that the experiment could create tiny black holes of intense gravity that could suck in the entire planet.
Cosmologists say the Big Bang occurred some 15 billion years ago when an unimaginably dense and hot object the size of a small coin exploded in what was then a void, spewed out matter that expanded rapidly to create stars, planets and eventually life on Earth.
But the 10 billion Swiss franc ($9 billion) CERN project, begins with a relatively simple procedure: pumping a particle beam around the underground tunnel.
Technicians will first attempt to push the beam in one direction round the tightly-sealed collider, some 100 meters underground. Once they have done that - and CERN officials say there is no guarantee they will be successful in the initial stages - they will project a beam in the other direction.
And then, perhaps in the coming weeks, they will pump beams in both directions and smash the particles together, initially at low intensity. At the end of the year, they will move on to produce tiny collisions that will recreate the heat and energy of the Big Bang, the reigning theory on the origin of the universe.
The detectors will monitor the billions of particles that will emerge from the collisions, capturing on computer the way they come together, fly apart or just simply dissolve.
It is in these conditions that scientists hope to fairly quickly find the Higgs Boson, named after Scottish scientist Peter Higgs who first proposed it in 1964 as the answer to the mystery of how matter gains mass.
Without mass, the stars and planets in the universe could never have taken shape in the aeons after the Big Bang, and life could never have begun - on Earth or, if it exists as many scientists believe, on other planets.
But the experiment is not without detractors. Certain Web sites on the Internet, which CERN created 20 years ago as a means of passing particle research results to scientists around the globe, have been promoted claims that the LHC will create black holes that will suck in the planet. "Nonsense," say the CERN and leading international scientists.
"The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction," said Aymar.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now