Monday, September 8, 2008

On Giddiness Regarding the Impending Collision of Particles

Over the past few days, I've encountered several really interesting things that I know I should be writing about, but for some reason have been having trouble mustering the ambition to do so. As such, I've got a backlog of topics I'd like to consider here, and hopefully in the days coming I can bring myself to elucidate these strands of the otherwise hectic, whirlwind-style operating mode of my conscious brain activity.

The thing that's grabbed me by the lobes today (brain lobes, mind you) is the Large Hadron Collider, a $10 billion particle accelerator that has been built beneath the Franco-Swiss border. It is the collaborative effort of over 8,000 physicists from 85 countries. The collider basically is a massive, highly-magnetized, 17-mile underground loop that scientists will shoot opposing streams of protons through (at 11,000 revolutions per second!), smashing these particles together and hoping the results will illuminate our understanding of the forces of the universe. On Wednesday, scientists will turn it on for the first time, and, provided everything operates in the intended manner, the results produced by experiments within the collider could provide the hard evidence for a variety of hypothetical concepts with key roles in present-day models of physics. Conversely, they could also shake modern theories of physics to the core.

Some of the plausible results of colliding particles on such a large scale seem straight out of science fiction: the unveiling of alternate spacial dimensions (Now Coming to You in Astounding 5-D!), the creation of micro black holes, and, according to a few overzealous apocalyptic types, the end of the very world as we know it. Of course, the latter option shouldn't rightfully be included in a list of "plausible" results, but such histrionics should certainly be considered when gauging just how charged the scientific atmosphere is around this momentous event. It is truly exploratory science, and many physicists are steeling themselves, preparing to potentially have their understanding of physics torn to shreds. While the main focus of the experiments conducted within the LHC will be to finally produce tangible evidence of particles called Higgs bosons (something I researched briefly and won't even pretend to understand, though apparently essential in the Standard Model of particle physics for explaining how massless particles can combine to create matter that does have mass), scientists also hope to gain a better understanding of the origins of the universe by creating situations similar to those that existed immediately after the Big Bang.

Even with a less-than-lay comprehension of modern physics (especially astrophysics, to which the LHC seems particularly relevant), I've found myself giddy with excitement all day. Wednesday will mark a momentous occasion in the history of science, and science always (well, usually) makes my day. I only lament that the publication of results from LHC experiments will probably take considerable time.

A final thought on all the doomsday trappings that are attached to the operation of the LHC: some of the more extreme opponents of the project have hypothesized that the LHC could produce a black hole large enough to result in the accretion of the entire planet, and a few have gone so far as to file lawsuits in an attempt to prevent the LHC from being turned on. While this possibility seems to be of almost no concern to those scientists operating the LHC, its consideration from an imaginative standpoint produces some interesting questions. What if a significantly large black hole was produced by the collider? Obviously one large enough to swallow the Earth wouldn't allow us to react to (or even be aware of) the disaster (another thing interesting to ponder, because those claiming it as a legitimate possibility would never discover they were correct should they actually be), but what about a smaller black hole that consumed less than the entirety of the planet's matter? Where exactly would the hole exist, and how would it effect people? How would the world be informed about a black hole disaster when so little of the world has any working understanding of what a black hole actually is? In the realm of speculative-science-become-nightmarish-reality, who becomes the authority on just how to inform the world of the situation, let alone devise a method to address the problem? How do you cordon-off a black hole when one can never know whether they've crossed the event horizon (that being the point at which you can no longer overcome the black hole's gravitational pull and escape)until it's too late? What does the process spaghettification look like (that is, before a person/thing is reduced to an imperceivable strand of elementary particles)? Even with a painfully amateurish grasp of the bare basics of quantum theory associated with black holes, starting to ponder such things is near migraine-inducing. I can almost understand how some overly paranoid, astrophysics-distended naysayer might actually convince themselves that the LHC is the ultimate, terrible expression of the purest form of nihilism. Blah.

My lobes hurt.

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