'Up' and 'Down' quarks and gluons in a neutron, image by Arpad Horvath

The Universe started life about 14 billion years ago in the Big Bang. This was an explosion of energy and matter which, in the first fraction of a second, caused an intense fireball which then expanded and cooled to form the Universe as we know it.

During this first moment of the explosion, the subatomic particles and forces that shape everything in the universe, including the world around us, came into existence. Many of the particles created in these early moments rapidly broke down and have (perhaps) never naturally existed again!

Everything, including ourselves, is made of matter whose structure is tightly controlled by basic laws of physics. Something called The Standard Model is used to explain what subatomic particles are made up from and their behaviour. For example, each atom contains a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Protons and neutrons are in turn made of quarks which are bound together by other particles called gluons.

A particle detector being constructed. Can you spot the man crouched down for scale? image by Muriel

Some of these subatomic particles in The Standard Model have not actually been found by scientists yet as our technology has not previously been sensitive enough. By building gigantic machines called accelerators scientists are now able to accelerate beams of protons (a subatomic particle) to 99.9999991% of the speed of light. They then collide the beams head on creating temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the heart of the sun (that’s pretty hot) – recreating the Big Bang.

Detectors placed along accelerators can then measure, record and visualise the new subatomic particles that go spraying off in all directions (imagine it like a soup of hot and dense particles all mixed up) in search of the missing or poorly understood particles, extra dimensions and clues about dark matter.

While we wait to see if and what they find out about the above, the technology used for these experiments is already being put to use. Including:

  • developing new cancer therapies that can be tailored to the individual patient
  • working with metal munching earthworms to establish new ways to clean up polluted soil and improve the environment
  • solving the molecular structure of the foot and mouth disease virus, leading to the development of an effective vaccine

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