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Primer: The Big-Bang Machine

Unlocking the secrets of the universe doesn't come cheap. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has spent at least 10 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest particle accelerator, under the Alps. This month, CERN will power up the LHC, and, later this summer, start smashing particles together to try to understand the beginnings of life, the universe — and everything. Scientists hope the answers to vexing mysteries (What causes mass? How did matter survive the big bang?) will eventually emerge from the debris. Here's a cheat sheet to the world's biggest science project.

1.Two beams of protons are propelled in opposite directions around a 17-MILE CIRCULAR TUNNEL, located at least 165 feet beneath the French-Swiss border. Building subsurface meant lower costs (no need to buy up acres and acres of land) and a natural rock shield for the radiation produced by the LHC.

2. The particles will be guided around the tunnel by more than 1,600 superpowerful, cylinder-shaped ELECTROMAGNETS, some of which weigh more than 30 tons. The protons will zoom around the ring up to 11,245 times per second, reaching 99.9999991% of the speed of light.

3. At four points in the ring, magnets will push the beams together, causing up to 600 million PROTON COLLISIONS per second. If all goes as planned, these high-speed, high-energy crashes will create bursts of rare forces and particles that haven't been seen since the big bang 13.7 billion years ago.

4. Four huge PARTICLE DETECTORS — the biggest, ATLAS, is 150 feet long, 82 feet high, and has more than 100 million sensors — will track and measure the particles at each collision. Filters will discard all but the 100 most interesting crashes per second. This will still produce enough data to fill a 12-mile-high stack of CDs per year.

Then What? The results will be analyzed by 100,000 processors and thousands of scientists around the world. CERN predicts that within a year they will be able to identify particles that had previously existed only in theory. Physicists will be hunting for the elusive Higgs boson, or "god particle," which is believed to imbue matter with mass. "We'll either find it," says CERN's James Gillies, "or prove that it doesn't exist." Particle physicists also hope to learn more about the composition of dark matter and dark energy — the invisible stuff that makes up 96% of the universe. They also want to prove that science fiction is actually reality by finding evidence of extra dimensions beyond our 3-D world.

For Robert Scoble's exclusive video tour of the LHC, go to FastCompany.TV.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.