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A Brief History of Atom Smashers

Smashing two things together in order to uncover their hidden properties is something hardly limited to the pleasure-inducing, dirty acts you’re now thinking about. Particle physicists all over the world have been constantly working on and improving...

by Rachel Walden
Jul 26 2012, 5:00pm

Smashing two things together in order to uncover their hidden properties is something hardly limited to the pleasure-inducing, dirty acts you're now thinking about. Particle physicists all over the world have been constantly working on and improving massive machines that accelerate and smash tiny, charged particles into each other at nearly the speed of light in order to learn more about how matter and energy work and react in the universe. Each new model has in some way outdone the previous, contributing to a competitive and enlightening streak in scientific discoveries that are driving us closer to uncovering the fundamental truths of the universe.

Intersecting Storage Rings

CERN, 1971-1984

As the world’s first hadron collider — a hadron being a particle made up of quarks held together by the strong force — the ISR produced the first proton-proton collision in 1971 as opposed to the previously used, and non-effective technique of using a single beam and stationary target. The Intersecting Storage Rings could produce particles like the J/ψ and upsilon, but couldn't observe events with large momentum transverse to the beam line. Another result produced by this accelerator was the discovery that protons contain smaller elements identified as quarks and gluons. In 1981, the ISR produced the first proton-antiproton collisions, paving the way for the next CERN accelerator, the Super Proton Synchrotron.

Super Proton Synchrotron

CERN, 1976-1984


The SPS looked for exotic forms of matter and how matter may have been in the early stages of the universe after the Big Bang. It was able to "probe the inner structure of protons and investigate nature's preference for matter over antimatter": In 1983, running as a proton-antiproton collider, the SPS won the Nobel Prize with its discovery of W and Z particles. Currently, the SPS is used as the final injector for high intensity proton beams for the Large Hadron Collider, which begain operating in 2008.


Brookhaven National Laboratory, 1970-1983

Brookhaven from above

Pioneered by mostly American scientists, ISABELLE was a superconducting magnet built in Brookhaven National Laboratory. However, ISABELLE didn't operate for long since technical problems having to do with powering the machine occurred. This caused Brookhaven to replace the ISABELLE proposal with a different machine design, which was also soon discontinued in favor of building a machine in Texas called the Superconducting Supercollider.


Fermilab, 1987-2011

The Tevatron, built at the United State's Fermilab, outside of Chicago, accelerated beams of protons and antiprotons to 99.9 percent of the speed of light around a four-mile circumference. These sorts of collisions imitated conditions in the early universe and looked into the structure of matter at a very small scale.

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider

BHL, 2000 – present


The RHIC was the first of two operating heavy-ion colliders, and is the only spin-polarized proton collider ever built. Currently, this is the only operating particle collider in the U.S. It works by colliding two beams of gold ions, both traveling at nearly the speed of light, usually melting the protons and neutrons, which in effect releases the quarks and gluons for a brief moment. After these collisions, thousands of other particles form as the area cools off, demonstrating similar conditions to the universe after the Big Bang.

Superconducting Super Collider



Major construction began on the SSC in 1991 in Texas, but was shut down in 1993 due to arguments that the U.S could not afford to fund both NASA's International Space Station and the Superconducting Super Collider, which were both multi-billion-dollar projects.

Super Large Hadron Collider

A proposed upgrade to the Large Hadron Collider set to happen after 10 years of LHC operation (so, 2018). The plan is to up the luminosity of the LHC by a factor of 10.

Project X

A proposed proton accelerator at Fermilab that would be built inside the Tevatron particle collider. Construction on it would start in 2016, in hopes of being operable in 2021 to deliver high-intensity proton beams to the Main Injector as well as conduct new experiments with kaons (bound state of quarks and anti-quarks), muons (unstable subatomic particle of the same class as an electron but is 200 times greater in mass than the electron), and neutrinos (subatomic particle with a mass close to zero) which would help to answer fundamental questions regarding potential extra dimensions of space, dark matter, and how the universe formed.

Very Large Hadron Collider

This the umbrella term for a potential collider sometime in the future that would dwarf the capabilities of the LHC. No location, no plans, no funding. Yet.


Large Hadron Collider
Intersecting Storage Rings