Sunday, June 29, 2008

CERN and the LHC

The European Center for Nuclear Research has been around a year longer than I have, it was founded in 1954 as one of Europe's first joint ventures, and has, over the years, contributed some of the most important fundamental scientific observations of the last half-century. They've had access to the most advanced scientific instruments available at any given time. But what's coming next is of an order of magnitude more complex than anything we have seen before. We are approaching power-on for the Large Hadron Collider. Because I have a background in physics the subject has been brought up in conversations several times in recent days, usually along the lines of, "Do you think when they turn on that big collider on, over there in Europe, it's going to be the end of the world?" My answer is a not very reassuring, "Who knows?"

We live in a whole big world of scary stuff; floods, wars, nuclear bombs, and reality TV just to name a few. In a solar system full of scary stuff, like asteroids, comets, and other stuff that might fly out of the sky and squish us. In a universe full of scary stuff, I don't even want to think of what a supernova or black hole would do. We've done a lot of injury and damage in the name of science in the past. Can the world really be any more over than it is for the amazing number of native populations decimated by smallpox, syphilis, and TB, all in the name of expanding our universe.

I can hear you saying, "We're not like that anymore." Heck boys and girls, we weren't completely sure when we set off the first fusion based "H-bomb" that it couldn't set off a chain reaction that would light up all of the hydrogen floating around our little planetary home. We didn't think it would and it didn't but, "Who knew?"

The chances of the accelerated protons or lead ions we send racing around the new thirteen-mile nuclear racetrack they've built three-hundred feet below the ground over on the Franco-Swiss border, forming a black-hole that doesn't dissipate, or an uncontrolled annihilation reaction due to anti-matter generation is less than one in fifty-million.

The good news, if you believe in string theory, is that even if it happens, we may end up in one of the other ten, twenty, or hundred other dimensions we aren't able to see, but that have to be there for the universe to work right.

How will it turn out? Only God knows, and he isn't telling, but he does give us a few hints, while the LHC may be the most powerful collider on earth it doesn't come close to reaching the energies that particles accelerated through the universe possess when they slam into our atmosphere. If they haven't blown us up yet, why should we be afraid of man's puny attempt to mimic nature's great collider?

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