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Particle Physics: A Very Short Introduction

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We are made of atoms. With each breath you inhale a million billion billion atoms of oxygen, which gives some idea of how small each one is. All of them, together with the carbon atoms in your skin, and indeed everything else on Earth, were cooked in a star some 5 billion years ago. So you are made of stuff that is as old as the planet, one-third as old as the universe, though this is the first time that those atoms have been gathered together such that they think that they are you.

Particle physics is the subject that has shown how matter is built and which is beginning to explain where it all came from. In huge accelerators, often several miles in length, we can speed pieces of atoms, particles such as electrons and protons, or even exotic pieces of antimatter, and smash them into one another. In so doing we are creating for a brief moment in a small region of space an intense concentration of energy, which replicates the nature of the universe as it was within a split second of the original Big Bang. Thus we are learning about our origins.

Discovering the nature of the atom 100 years ago was relatively simple: atoms are ubiquitous in matter all around, and teasing out their secrets could be done with apparatus on a table top. Investigating how matter emerged from Creation is another challenge entirely. There is no Big Bang apparatus for purchase in the scientific catalogues. The basic pieces that create the beams of particles, speed them to within an iota

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