Scientists around the world are waiting with bated breath for Wednesday, when one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery, and one of the largest, ever created by man, will be activated for the first time. Nestled 100 metres below ground, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will accelerate sub-atomic particles to nearly the speed of light and then smash them together, with the aim of filling gaps in our understanding of the cosmos.
Will the Geneva-based effort reveal why most sub-atomic particles have mass (probably signalled by the appearance of something called the Higgs particle)? Will the vast experiment reveal why nature prefers matter over anti-matter? Will it overturn the Standard Model, a collection of theories that embodies all of our current understanding of fundamental particles and forces? - there are a lot of questions waiting to be answered in just two days' time.
After nearly two decades and 6 billion Swiss francs ($8 billion or £4.4 billion), an army of 5,000 scientists, engineers and technicians drawn from nearly three dozen countries have brought the mammoth project close to fruition. The project has also birthed amazing new futuristic technologies such as a possible successor to today's Internet to deal with the massive amounts of data expected to be generated by the experiment. (See: New internet promises to be 10,000 times faster)
At 9.30am (1730 AEST) on Wednesday, the first protons will be injected into a 27-kilometre ring-shaped tunnel, straddling the Swiss-French border at the headquarters of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). Accelerated to within a millionth of a per cent of the speed of the light, the particles will be the first step in a long-term experiment to smash sub-atomic components together, briefly generating temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the Sun in a microscopic space, similar to that experienced during the Big Bang or the momentous creation of the Universe.
CERN was set up in 1955 by European scientists who had won the ear of government through their nuclear work during the Second World War, and who recognised that progress in their subject would require equipment too expensive for any single European country to fund. But what started as a European project is now in effect a machine that belongs to the world.
India also plays a prominent part in the proceedings. Despite not being a member of CERN, India made a significant contribution as an observer state to the build-up of the multi-billion dollar experiment. Scores of Indian scientists and other professionals in nuclear and other material sciences took part in select areas of setting up the LHC machine over the last 20 years.
There are four major experiments that will be conducted at four points around the ring where the beams will be directed into head-on collisions and India is participating in the CMS experiment and the Alice experiment.
The CMS explores into the next developments in the world of physics, and more importantly, into the elusive Higgs boson particle - popularized as the God particle - that explains the origin of mass. The Alice experiment will study what happened when the super-hot universe expanded within a second after its creation 13 billion years ago, especially the protons, equivalent to hydrogen nuclei, reacted with other particles in a next few minutes to form light nuclei such as helium.
The LHC will search for all those extra dimensions through giant detectors that will examine the shower particle debris. Besides, the experiment might also create ''dark matter'' which is currently present in the universe. Scientists had calculated that about 23 per cent of the universe is dark matter, 73 per cent dark energy and 4 per cent ordinary matter.
Indian research establishments including the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, and Punjab University were involved in providing software and quality-testing services of detectors.