Tuesday, 9 September 2008

"And I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords."

Tomorrow in the CERN laboratories deep beneath France and Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider will be shooting a particle beam all the way around its 27 kilometre circumference. This is a preliminary circulation before the first high-energy particle collisions take place at the end of October.

A great deal of people in the media and in the public have raised concerns about the implications of such high-energy particle acceleration: the main concerns revolve around the theoretical possibility that the LHC’s particle collision will tear a large chunk out of our galaxy which, needless to say, would obliterate the Earth. This has resulted in some utterly frivolous lawsuits from Hawaii - the plaintiff can only win the case if their existence is ended. Rather than being afraid of the LHC, humanity should be proud: we as a species are about to conduct the largest-scale scientific experiment in human history. We are trying to emulate the very beginnings of the universe. We are, almost in a literal sense, playing God. It’s a moment to be proud of human ingenuity and to celebrate the enterprise of science. This is a moment of triumph, not of fear.

What will the Large Hadron Collider do? The collider is a giant experiment in the field of quantum physics. At the start of the universe subatomic particles, the smallest we can detect, were formed along with some of the forces that govern the operation of the universe. This universe creation theory is known as the Standard Model and features a set of elementary particles and forces that form the building blocks for the rest of the atomic universe. The Standard Model consists of these elementary particles: six quarks, six leptons, five bosons, and the legendary Higgs boson. It also has three of the four forces: electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force (the unincluded fourth being gravity).

This Standard Model theory was conceived in the twentieth century and as such is still disputed among the scientific community. It has numerous technical problems, one of which is that the Higgs boson is a theoretical and as-yet-undetected subatomic particle that was invented with the aim of giving particles mass. That is where the LHC comes in. The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator meaning that it has the ability to shoot subatomic particles at immense speeds into other subatomic particles. This proton-proton collision should give some manner of explosive effect wherein the Higgs boson should theoretically be visible. If the Higgs boson is seen it will lend credence to the Standard Model and possibly win a Nobel Prize for Peter Higgs, the Scottish physicist behind the theorised particle. If not, it will provide evidence for other theories and give an insight into the troublesome nature of matter.

It has been almost two decades since the LHC was proposed and just over ten years since its construction began. It’s an immense structure on the French-Swiss border near Geneva hidden beneath pristine countryside. As well as creating the LHC to look like futuristic science-fiction, CERN’s research has already yielded positive results. You are able to read this text because of the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, a CERN scientist. His idea (his ‘www proposal’) was to combine hypertext with the CERN laboratories’ internet node and the domain name system. The first website was built at CERN and put online in 1991. From there sprang the modern World Wide Web which you are now using.

What are the concerns that scientists (including Professor Brian Cox of the University of Manchester) have derided? The public seem to have the idea, promoted by the sensationalist media, that the experiment is likely to go wrong. One theoretical concern is related to the creation of a micro black hole from which no matter in the vicinity of the Sol system would survive. Professor Otto R√∂ssler believes that a micro black hole would quickly become self-sustaining and grow exponentially. His argument has been dismissed as he does not take into account the effect of Hawking radiation: rather the consensus is that in the unlikely event of black hole creation, the black hole would quickly dissipate on its own. A further concern is with the creation of strange matter; a form of matter that would transform all surrounding matter into strange matter thus consuming the entire material galaxy and beyond rather quickly. This will either turn the universe into a gelatinous blob of strange matter with none of the properties we presently associate with physics or will transform us all into parallel ‘strange versions’ of ourselves.

The good thing is that in the extremely unlikely event of either of these or in the event that our sector of space implodes tomorrow, the entirety of spacetime will be destroyed. With no time there will be no past and therefore the concept of existence has no meaning. You or I will never have existed because there would be no past time for us to have existed in. There would be nothing, absolute nothingness. That’s not so bad of an end, is it? No pain, simply instant negation. No, I think the worst thing that could happen is a ‘Half-Life’ scenario where an experiment beneath the Earth goes wrong creating portals all around the world through which alien beings come to spread, hunt, kill, and ultimately enslave our species, establishing our solar system as one more colony for their vast galactic empire. I’m sure if that happens Tom Cruise and his Scientologist armies will rise up to defend the planet against the forces of Xenu ultimately leading to Scientology becoming protectors of the Earth.

Now that would be the worst possible result of high-energy particle collisions.

Addendum: Discovered the words 'time travel' in connection with the LHC and got excited. Realistically though it's probably not going to become a time machine.

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