'Fifth dimension' lures intrepid team

October 24, 2003

A fizz of evaporating black holes could give a team of British physicists a glimpse into the fifth dimension.

The experiment, which is straight out of the pages of a science-fiction novel, will be carried out deep below the Franco-Swiss border in four years' time when the Large Hadron Collider is switched on at the Cern nuclear physics laboratory near Geneva.

Two beams of protons will be smashed into each other at close to the speed of light.

Other scientists plan to study the sub-atomic carnage created by the £1.5 billion LHC for signs of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that could help explain why matter has weight.

But the British team, lead by Cambridge University physicist Andy Parker, is looking for something even more exotic. It has already simulated on computers at the Cavendish Laboratory the telltale showers of sub-atomic particles that would be thrown out by the demise of the tiny black holes it hopes to find.

If the researchers' calculations are correct, the existence of extra dimensions beyond space and time could be confirmed within six months of the LHC starting up.

Theoreticians have surmised that if extra dimensions exist, they could be so small as to be physically undetectable.

But they might betray their presence in the surge of high energy unleashed by the collision of two proton beams.

These events would drive gravity waves into the extra dimensions. The physicists have calculated that this could strengthen gravity locally to such an extent that tiny black holes would form.

The black holes would emit Hawking radiation -a phenomenon predicted by physicist Stephen Hawking -which should be picked up by the giant detectors being installed at Cern. "These black holes make a nice bang when they disappear," Dr Parker said.

Among the implications of such a discovery would be new hope of unifying gravity with other known forces in the universe.

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