The LHC as a photon collider

Yes, that’s correct: photon collider.

The Large Hadron Collider is known for smashing together protons. The energy from these collisions gets converted into matter, producing new particles that allow us to explore the nature of our Universe. The protons are not fired at one another individually; instead, they are circulated in bunches inside the LHC, each bunch containing some 100 billion (100,000,000,000) particles. When two bunches cross each other in the centre of CMS, a few of the protons — around 25 or so — will collide with one another. The rest of the protons continue flying through the LHC unimpeded until the next time two bunches cross.

Sometimes, something very different happens. As they fly through the LHC, the accelerating protons radiate photons, the quanta of light. If two protons going in opposite directions fly very close to one another within CMS, photons radiated from each can collide together and produce new particles, just as in proton collisions. The two parent protons remain completely intact but recoil as a result of this photon-photon interaction: they get slightly deflected from their original paths but continue circulating in the LHC. We can determine whether the photon interactions took place by identifying these deflected protons, thus effectively treating the LHC as a photon collider and adding a new probe to our toolkit for exploring fundamental physics.

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Image: Quartic gauge coupling – A Feynman diagram showing how protons radiate photons that then interact and produce W bosons.

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