How to Make a Particle Accelerator, In Under 5 Minutes

An under-5-minute explanation of how you make a particle accelerators.

When we read about the latest in physics, we’re so excited by some strange new particle that we may take for granted the high-tech device that allowed physicists to make their discovery. We know vaguely what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), for example, is — a particle accelerator — and we know where it is — beneath the France/Switzerland border near Geneva — and we know it smashes atoms after spinning them around a 27-kilometer ring. But how do they get those atoms moving? Do they just pour them into one end and shout, “go?”


In less than five minutes, one of the people who designs particle accelerators, Suzie Sheehy, explains how these amazing beasties work and how you build one. Well, not you, or me, but a team of very smart people like her.

The LHC is the largest machine in the world. Here’s just a bit about the thousands of magnets it contains to give you a sense of the collider’s scale, and of the tech involved. The LHC has 1232 15-meter dipole magnets to bend its particle beams, and 392 5-7-meter quadrupole magnets to focus them. Another kind of magnet pushes them together to increase their chances for a productive collision. Oh, also, the magnets have to be cooled down to ‑271.3°C, which is colder than outer space.

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