Next week, on Monday, July 7th (* update, see comments below) , the guys and gals at CERN in Switzerland will turn on the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. This enormous facility is a 27-kilometer long ring of supercooled magnets buried 100 meters deep, built to accelerate matter to cosmic speeds, smash the matter against itself and watch closely the results of the collisions.
The LHC’s purpose is to recreate conditions of the earliest measurable instant of time, known as the Big Bang. The July 7th experiments promise to turn on the lights with regard to a wide range of particles that are presumed to exist but have never been observed.
It’s also presumed the Earth will exist on July 8th, but you never know.
While I would cheerfully welcome an event that did away with humankind’s tiresome presumption of its importance in the universe, I would prefer that the most annoying people among us learned about their insignificance before facing it. According to some physicists, booting up the LHC has some possible runaway risks that might prevent that all-important reckoning period.
Recreating the universe’s beginnings at the energy levels the LHC can muster brings with it a series of potentially unpalatable scenarios that could clear your summer schedule in a big hurry. They include:
Creation of Magnetic Monopoles: Long story short, nobody knows what the fundamental deal is with magnetic force. The question of what kind of particles carry magnetic force is an unsolved problem in physics, and some LHC experiments are designed to find out. One far-out risk scenario with these experiments is the creation of monopole magnets, particles that, unlike normal magnets with two opposing poles, only have one. There are theories and some physical evidence that these particles exist in nature but move very quickly, near the speed of light. If cooked up by the LHC in sufficient numbers, the particles, predicted to be much much more strongly-charged than electrons, stripped of their cosmic speeds and wallowing in the Earth’s gravitational field might get awful friendly with each other and pile up in huge arcs or waves that encompass and disrupt the earth’s electromagnetic field, which would not be great for survivability where working electricity is a factor in daily life.
Nano-Blackholes: According to Stephen Hawking, little bitty black holes occur and “evaporate” in nature when certain cosmic rays smack into stuff. LHC’s experiments are very much about simulating and reproducing cosmic rays smacking into stuff and so may develop such nano-blackholes but without the speed and trajectory of the naturally occurring ones. As with the monopole magnets, the danger is that these should-be-hauling-ass objects would instead poke around the earth’s gravity field and accumulate, not evaporate. A resulting combined greater-than-nano-scale black hole appearing 100m under the Swiss countryside would make fast work of the country’s cheese, chocolate, watchmakers and cukoo clocks, sucking them all in, followed by you and me and everything on earth some fraction of a second later. Even Dr. Hawking, if he were present, would barely have time to press the key on his vocalizer for “oh shit.”
Creaton of Strangelets: My personal favorite: the LHC may produce a physical manifestation of the theoretical phenomenon of a strangelet. Not the name of a garage band band on a Pebbles compilation, strangelets are constructions made of the stuff that makes up protons and neutrons, known as quarks. An aim of LHC experiments is to unify the theories behind the behavior of three of the four basic forces on physics (gravity is omitted) : electromagnetic, strong nuclear force (the force that holds nuclei together) and weak nuclear force (the force that keeps electrons from flying out of the nuclear orbit in the atom.) In exploring the commonalities between these forces, strangelets were conceived. A strangelet is a chunk of strange matter (they name this stuff well, don’t they?) which is a more stable version of an atom due to a slightly different quark recipe in its composition. Once again, terrestrial as opposed to celestial speed is the issue. The general worry is that the strangelets might, when created “at rest” (meaning not near the speed of light) get into a slow collision with an unsuspecting nucleus of an atom of copper or whatever. The property of the stragelet’s construction is such that it catalyzes the copper atom into strange matter, which releases energy, and another strangelet, and so on in a chain reaction until the planet is converted into a hot lump of uninhabitable strange matter.
In the minutes leading to the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb, Enrico Fermi, in order to allay the tension, offered to take bets on the result of the explosion: would the first uncontrolled explosive nuclear chain reaction ignite the atmosphere and destroy New Mexico, or the whole planet?
Fermi was making a joke, but it’s worth remembering that he didn’t know what was going to happen to the atmosphere – nobody did. And nobody claimed to.
In contrast, LHC staff have, in a quite sad and transparent betrayal of forthrightness, denied that any LHC experiments pose any kind of risk.
A world where an affront to common sense such as this stands – a place where people in officialdom will tell you with a straight face that this unprecedented gear used in this unprecedented way at unprecedented energy levels categorically can not pose any safety risk – that’s a world so preoccupied with condescension, so lost in its willingness to bullshit that I for one can do without it.
Press the button!