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The Cosmos: A Beginner's Guide - Building the universe

Updated Friday, 6th July 2007

We reveal all about the universe: how it, and everything in it, came into being and the huge new experiments currently being done to investigate it.

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part of the ATLAS collision detector Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Adam Hart-Davis presents this episode from the biggest and most daring experiment of all - the Large Hadron Collider.

In a 27 kilometre tunnel, 100 metres underground at CERN, Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider is the biggest particle accelerator in the world. By colliding protons at near light speed, scientists here intend to blast their way back 14 billion years by creating a mini Big Bang. They hope this will reveal the fundamental beginnings of our universe. But how can we be sure there really was a Big Bang?

Janet Sumner heads to the famous 100 inch Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, California, where evidence for the theory of the Big Bang began to stack up. It was here in the 1920s that astronomer Edwin Hubble first observed galaxies moving away from each other. This shocking discovery meant that the universe was expanding and, by tracking the expansion back in time, it was possible to work out when it started. It turned out that the universe began nearly 14 billion years ago, in what became known as the Big Bang.

Back at CERN Adam talks to Cambridge scientist Dr Ben Allanach about what they hope to find in recreating the conditions of the Big Bang and is surprised to learn that we don’t actually know what most of the universe is made of!

Professor Carlos Frenk from the University of Durham reckons he has a pretty good idea of what’s needed to make a universe, though. He’s spent the last 25 years running computer simulations of universes and, although he’s generated a stack of rather strange-looking ones, his most recent attempt looks strikingly similar to the real thing. The trick, he shows us, is using just the right type of "dark matter".

At the heart of the CERN experiment is the 7000 tonne ATLAS detector. Dr Pippa Wells explains to Adam how this massive machine, housed in a cavern the size of a cathedral, has the job of working out exactly what’s produced in each collision - and it’s capable of handling 600 million collisions a second!

We discover that CERN isn’t the only place trying to make bits of the universe. About a billion years after the Big Bang the stars started to shine and it’s now possible to make a star on Earth! Janet Sumner teams up with Dr Andy Kirk at UKAEA Fusion to see how you go about making a star and learns how artificial stars might one day save the planet.

We find out all about a 7 year mission to collect the stuff that stars and planets are made of. The spacecraft is now back on Earth but the stardust is so small scientists can’t find it! Dr Andrew Westphal explains how the public can go about helping NASA search.

Adam picks up a snooker cue to show how the ATLAS scientists will work out what’s made in each collision. His snooker version of the detector winds back time to show what happened at the moment of collision, just like the real thing.

And astrochemist Dr Helen Fraser shares her stomach-churning experience of trying to make planets in zero gravity. She finds that we don’t really know how particles stick together to make the planets.

First broadcast: Tuesday 7 Aug 2007 on BBC TWO





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