Shop Windows to the Universe

Arches National Park Geology Tour provides an extensive, visually rich description of the geology of Arches, by Deborah Ragland, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.

Why are atoms "smashed" in an accelerator? What is learned by thatprocess? Why doesn't it set off a chain reaction like an atomic bomb?What is the difference between "smashing" and "fusion"? Since theydismantled the project here in Texas, I always wondered what was intendedto be learned by such a costly project.

Actually they don't "smash" atoms in accelerators anymore, but even when they did the purposes were the same. What are "smashed" in accelerators now are generally protons, anti-protons, neutrons, electrons, and positrons. It's done by creating counter-circulating beams of the particles of interest and intersecting them at certain points in the accelerator where the detectors are located. The scientists are trying to figure out what the particles are made of. It's a bit like taking your watch and smashing it with a sledge hammer, watching the parts fly by and from what you've observed, trying to figure out exactly how the watch was originally assembled.

There are two reasons it doesn't set off a chain reaction. The first is the particles being investigated are not capable of participating in the type of chain reaction that occurs in an atomic bomb. The second is that the density of particles in an accelerator beam is extremely low. When creating an atomic bomb, chunks of a certain isotope of uranium are used. In an accelerator the density of the particles is at least 100 billion times less, so even if they were using uranium atoms no chain reaction would be started.

The difference between "smashing" and "fusion" is that when the scientists are "smashing" particles they try ensure that there is sufficient energy at the interaction site so that reactions occur. Fusion is the process of taking four protons (actually they use deuterium) and combining them into a single helium nucleus with a release of energy. If fusion can be done controllably and economically it would provide a nearly inexhaustible energy supply.

Actually scientists weren't exactly sure what they would learn from the SSC (Superconducting Super Collider). That is part of the reason they wanted it built. Every time something like it has been built in the past, unexpected things were discovered. One of the things they were going to look for was a particle called the Higgs Boson. It is possible that all other particles are decay products of the Higgs.

Submitted by Mike (Texas, USA)
(October 22, 1997)

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Learn about Earth and space science, and have fun while doing it! The games section of our online store includes a climate change card game and the Traveling Nitrogen game!

Windows to the Universe Community



You might also be interested in:

Atomic Nucleus

Atoms are composed of a massive, central nucleus surrounded by a swarm of fast-moving electrons. The nucleus is made up of protons and, in most cases, neutrons. Almost all of the mass (more than 99%) of...more

What are the retrograde motions of planets in the sky?

It depends on what kind of motion you are talking about. When seen from the north pole of the celestial sphere all planets orbit around the Sun in a counter-clockwise or direct path. Most planets also...more

How do Astronauts Live in Space?

Almost everyone has a question or two about living in space. What do astronauts do in space? How do they do everyday things like eat, sleep and go to the bathroom? Well, this is our attempt to answer...more

How far is the Earth from the Sun, the Moon and all the other planets? How far are all of the planets from the Sun? Do you know of a software that tracks the planets in real-time?

There is a really neat internet program called Solar System Live that shows the position of all of the planets and the Sun for any given day. If you go to that page, you'll see an image similar to the...more

Is it really true that man never really walked on the Moon?

The picture of the American Flag (the one put there by the Apollo astronauts) is waving (or straight out) in the wind. How could that be possible if there is no atmosphere on the Moon? Was it some sort...more

How many planets orbit the sun?

I was wondering if there is a new planet? Are there planets (a tenth planet?) after Pluto belonging to our solar system? What are the names of the new planets discovered in the solar system? Are there...more

According to Stephen Hawking, any object with an energy which equals Plank's energy has to become a black hole.

If that is so, the energy released during the Big Bang must have created many such black holes. Therefore most of the Energy of the Big bang must have disappeared in that form. Then how did the Universe...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA