The World Ends Wednesday?
That’s right, this coming Wednesday the largest most powerful scientific instrument ever built by man (women scientists don’t build stuff like this) is going to be switched on. This device is so powerful that some even say it could destroy the Earth. No, I’m not making this up, on Wednesday scientists are going to fire up the Large Hadron Collider (LHC.) This giant machine is a 27 kilometre (17 mile) ring buried under the ground on the border between France and Switzerland. The LHC will basically fire elementary atomic particles (aka hadrons) at each other where they will collide at the speed of light. Yes, it’s a good old fashioned atom smasher. Scientists studying these collisions will be able to learn more about the basic structure of reality. They may even be able to create the elusive Higgs boson particle, the holy grail of particle physics, also known as the “God particle.” That’s the plan at least.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that no one has ever built such a machine before. Some scientists have conjectured that when used at full power, the LHC might create small black holes or even some sort of “strange matter” that will convert all other nearby matter into strange matter. The danger with the black holes is that they would settle to the centre of the Earth and over the ensuing weeks or months would swallow up the Earth entirely, preceded of course by truly biblical earthquakes and such as Earth is consumed from the inside out. With the strange matter fate, it’s a lot more humane, one second we’re here, a twentieth of a second later we’re gone. Poof. Not even enough time for the scientists running the LHC to say “uh-oh.”
How real are these risks? The bottom line is…no one knows. I mean, until we turn the machine on. The potential problems have been studied at great length by scientists who assure us there is no risk. For one thing hadrons collide in nature at similar or greater speeds, and we don’t see any evidence of such disasters occurring. And then there’s all sorts of theoretical reasons why they say the potential disastrous outcomes can’t conceivably occur. I don’t even begin to understand particle physics, I doubt few people do, so I certainly can’t argue with them.
However, and it’s a big however, there are a few flies in the ointment. For one thing, the scientists who are telling us the LHC is safe are the very same scientists who wanted the LHC built in the first place. Even a lay person can see potential problems there. And it seems most of the decisions along the way to build the LHC and vet its safety have been made by committees. Unfortunately, it may seem counter-intuitive, but committees will often make much riskier decisions than individuals will.
Looking at the arguments for safety themselves, they mostly seem based on the idea that since we don’t see these collisions causing problems in nature, there’s no cause for concern. The problem with that is that in nature, these collisions aren’t taking place in artificial constructed machines on the surface of planets. There might be subtle but dangerous differences in the collisions we are artificially creating from those taking place in nature. One of the points made for example is that if nature is creating these dangerous things, they zip through Earth at near light speed and don’t have time to cause trouble whereas we might manufacture one that would be captured by Earth’s gravity and thus hang around to wreak havoc. Um, it’s also been seriously suggested that maybe we are seeing stars that have been turned into strange matter, we just don’t recognize them.
I am reminded of a scene from Lexx, a Canadian scifi show. An alien remarks to a human companion that planets like modern day Earth usually don’t last much longer. When asked why the alien says “Oh, war, ecological collapse…but usually they are crushed to the size of a pea by scientists trying to determine the mass of the Higgs-Boson particle.” Hmm. The good news is that doomsday likely won’t happen Wednesday…it’s more likely to happen when they run the LHC up to full power sometime in October. Sleep tight everyone.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is central to illustrating the image, is not being used for profit, and its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. Credit: Unknown. I’m not really too worried about the LHC, it just fits in nicely with my current “the end is nigh” theme. I do wonder what is so important about an experiment that we are going to conduct it even though the destruction of the Earth is a possible side effect. Is that, really, sane?)