Brain-Bending Sculpture Explains How Particle Accelerators Work

Particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider are arguably the most complicated machines ever conceived by humankind, but just how they smash atoms can be explained rather simply. Well, by “simply” we mean “with a mesmerizing weird moving sculpture.”

In the video above, accelerator physicist (awesome title) Suzie Sheehy explains how beams of particles smashed together at close to the speed of light are held in place, floating in a particle accelerator. Preventing these particles from colliding into the walls is extremely complicated, but the fundamental physics can be summarized by a this perfectly looped GIF:

As Sheehy explains, the ball on the saddle above would fall right off if the saddle were stationary. To keep it in place, the saddle has to rotate as the correct speed. Particle accelerators use magnetic fields instead of psychical saddles. In this case, magnetic fields changing at the right speed force the ions into one area. Go too far up, down, to the left or right and the magnetic fields push the particles back towards the center. When the fields are balanced in the correct orientation, as the force arrows in the graphic below show, there is nowhere for the particles to go except the path of most smashing.

The idealized forces in what’s called a quadropole magnet. As the blue force arrows show, when particles are pulled and pushed in opposite directions simultaneously, the result is staying in one place.

Sheehy also shows off a slightly more complicated example of what particle accelerators do: pollen trapped in a beam by an electric field. Because the tiny allergy aggravators respond to positive and negative charges, they can be forced into one location by rapidly changing the direction of the fields. It’s like being pulled and pushed in all directions directions at once — you end up going nowhere.

As entranced by the above physics demonstration as we were? Let us know in the comments below.

Images: The Royal Institution; Andre.holzner