Why are atoms "smashed" in an accelerator? What is learned by that process? Why doesn't it set off a chain reaction like an atomic bomb? What is the difference between "smashing" and "fusion"? Since they dismantled the project here in Texas, I always wondered what was intended to be learned by such a costly project.
Actually they don't "smash" atoms in accelerators anymore, they "smash" parts of atoms. It's done by creating beams of the particles and intersecting them at certain points in the accelerator where detectors are located. The scientists are trying to figure out what the particles are made of. It's a bit like taking your father's watch, smashing it with a sledge hammer and watching the parts fly by. Then, from what you've observed, you try to figure out exactly how the watch was originally put together.
The reason "smashing" doesn't set off a chain reaction is that the particles being investigated are not capable of participating in the type of chain reaction that happens in an atomic bomb.
The difference between "smashing" and "fusion" is that one process (smashing) knocks things apart while the other (fusion) puts four hydrogen atoms together to make a helium atom.
Actually scientists weren't exactly sure what they would learn from the SSC (Superconducting Super
Collider). That is part of the reason they wanted to build it. Every time
something like it has been built in the past, unexpected things were
Submitted by Mike (age 38, Texas, USA)
(October 22, 1997)