Yesterday, I went on a House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee visit to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.
For those who haven't heard of it, the Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. It is a ring-shaped, 27 kilometre-long tunnel over 100 metres beneath the Swiss-French border. Beams of protons (tiny particles found in the nucleus of every atom) are accelerated in opposite directions until they are close to the speed of light and then crashed into each other. At high enough energies, these collisions are predicted to produce particles that existed in the moments after the Big Bang.
The engineering is incredible. Superconducting magnets, which have to be kept colder than outer space with liquid helium, refine the beams of protons until they are no wider than a human hair and ensure that they collide head on. Huge detectors then record over 30,000,000 collisions every second and instantly discard those that don't look interesting (don't have any signs of the new particles scientists are looking for). And scientists all over the world then analyse the remaining collisions.
After a difficult first year, scientists feel the collider and detectors are now working really well and are confident or a major discovery in the next year or two. This is our generation's equivalent of the moon landings - a huge multi-disciplinary effort with lots of spin-offs (among them the internet, which was invented at CERN) which will transform our understanding of the world we live in. It was a pleasure to see it first hand. If your school would like to visit, please get in touch.
UPDATE: Simon in the comments below has suggested I include some links so here is some info about the Large Hadron Collider, here is a publication produced by the Institute of Physics and about particle physics and here is a good site for kids.