How Atom Smashers Work

End view of a collision of two gold beams in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.  See more black hole images.

Photo courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory

Early in the 20th century, we discovered the structure of the atom. We found that the atom was made of smaller pieces called subatomic particles -- most notably the proton, neutron, and electron. However, experiments conducted in the second half of the 20th century with "atom smashers," or particle accelerators, revealed that the subatomic structure of the atom was much more complex. Particle accelerators can take a particle, such as an electron, speed it up to near the speed of light, collide it with an atom and thereby discover its internal parts.

In this article, we will look at these amazing devices and how the results they obtain tell us about the fundamental structure of matter, the forces holding it together and the origins of the universe!