Scientists will launch an experiment in a tunnel deep beneath the French-Swiss border Wednesday, hoping to find evidence of extra dimensions, invisible "dark matter," and an elusive particle called the "Higgs boson."

And although leading physicists such as Stephen Hawking say the atom-smashing experiment will be absolutely safe, some skeptics fear the proton collisions could unleash microscopic black holes that would eventually doom the Earth.

The most powerful atom-smasher ever built will produce collisions of protons traveling at nearly the speed of light in the circular tunnel, giving off showers of particles that will provide more clues as to how everything in the universe is made. In the $10 billion project -- the most extensive physics experiment in history -- the Large Hadron Collider will come ever closer to re-enacting the "big bang," the theory that a colossal explosion created the cosmos.

The project, organized by the 20 member nations of the European Organization for Nuclear Research -- known by its French initials CERN -- has attracted researchers of 80 nationalities. Some 1,200 are from the United States, an observer country that contributed $531 million.

The collider is designed to push the proton beam close to the speed of light, moving around the 17-mile tunnel at 11,000 times a second at full power.

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