Atom smashers may become larger, if plans are adopted for a next-generation machine under consideration by Europe's particle physics laboratory CERN. 

In order to test theories of quantum physics, scientists cause sub-atomic particles to collide with each other at great speed. Each insight poses new questions, which can only be answered through collisions carried out at greater speeds. These higher velocities can only be achieved using larger accelerator. 

The proposed facility would be four times the size of the largest atom smasher in the world today, the Large Hadron Collider or LHC. The LHC fills a circular tunnel, 15 miles around, near Geneva on the border between France and Switzerland. The new facility would have a circumference of 40 to 45 miles, encircling the city of 185,000 people. It would stretch from the Alps to the Jura Mountains, and part of it would be constructed under Lake Geneva. 

The proposal was made after a recent meeting of scientists in the Swiss capital. During the meeting, representatives from Japan and China proposed hosting large colliders in their home countries.  

CERN launched a ten-year study plan called the Future Circular Collider (FCC) program to study the feasibility of building a new atom smasher, far more powerful than today's LHC. The group also intends to take five years to decide which experiments to run next. 

"We still know very little about the Higgs Boson, and our search for dark matter and supersymmetry continues. The forthcoming results from the LHC will be crucial in showing us which research paths to follow in the future and what will be the most suitable type of accelerator to answer the new questions that will soon be asked," Sergio Bertolucci, Director for Research and Computing at CERN, said.

The new facility could witness the collision of several forms of particles, including protons. These can be used to investigate conditions similar to those during the Big Bang that created the Universe. The proposed size of the new atom smasher could handle protons more easily than the Large Hadron Collider. Electrons are a favorite of other researchers, as they are easier to steer than protons, and produce a cleaner signal. 

The LHC cost $5.6 billion, and scientists at the meeting were urged to not even speculate on the price of a new facility. Even with new boring techniques, just digging the tunnel could take five to six years. 

"We need to sow the seeds of tomorrow's technologies today, so that we are ready to take decisions in a few years' time," Frédérick Bordry, CERN's director for accelerators and technology, said. 

Some physicists believe digging should begin now, without waiting for decisions from CERN. With or without new findings from the LHC, these observers point out finding answers will require higher energies.

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