Monday, June 30, 2008

Professor Astronomy and the Supercollider of Doom

Image Credit: CERN

The "Doomsday Supercollider" sounds like some bad B-movie plot, or something that Indiana Jones or James Bond might be out to stop. But, in fact, it is a horrible misnomer for one of the most exciting physics facilities to come along in decades, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC (picture above).

For years, news stories have been circulating (including one on CNN today!) that the LHC could produce a miniature black hole that will quickly swallow the Earth, or a piece of strange matter that will convert the entire Earth to strange matter, killing us all.

This is balderdash. Bunk. Crap. The people proposing this are misinformed, wrong, and wasting energy protesting a threat that doesn't exist.

First, what is the LHC? Simply, it is a new and more powerful particle accelerator ("atom smasher") nearing operations in Switzerland. The LHC will run experiments to try and confirm several theoretical subatomic particles, perhaps including dark matter particles , that have been theorized but never proven. Finding some of these particles (like the Higgs boson) will be final proof that our current ideas about subatomic particles and quantum physics are correct. Finding new particles, like dark matter, would go a long way toward understanding the stuff that makes up 25% of our Universe.

Some scientists have theorized that the experiments might be capable of making miniature black holes (many times smaller than the size of our smallest subatomic particles). Other people started worrying about this, because they fear that such a black hole would quickly swallow the entire Earth. This is wrong. A black hole can only swallow stuff within its reach, and the reach of a black hole is only a few times its diameter. Any black holes that are made would be so small that they could fit inside the nucleus of an atom and not swallow anything. Further, if Stephen Hawking's ideas on black holes are correct, any black hole would quickly evaporate in a shower of subatomic particles. And if Hawking is wrong, the black hole will fly off of the Earth at almost the speed of light. We'd never see it again.

Other scientists have hypothesized that the experiments might make "strange matter" (a form of matter that is rarely seen), and a few others have taken this much further and said that these "strangelets" might be able to convert the entire Earth instantly to strange matter, which would destroy the entire planet. I know little about the properties of strange matter, but I am not worried.

Why don't I worry?

First and foremost, the Earth has naturally been conducting the same particle experiments for 4.5 billion years. High-energy particles called cosmic rays routinely hit Earth's atmospheres at energies much higher than the LHC, and the Earth hasn't been swallowed by black holes or converted to strange matter yet. If either of these fears were remotely founded, the Earth would have been destroyed eons ago.

Second, while there may be a misanthropic scientist or two here and there who doesn't care much for other people, the thousands of scientists involved in the LHC are well-adjusted human beings. They don't want to destroy the planet, and they would not engage in any activity that had the slightest chance of doing so. After all, what good is running an experiment if you can't be around to study the results, and if it destroys your home, all of your family and friends, and you as well?

There are many true dangers to Earth and society. Global warming, war, hunger, and poverty are some of the biggest threats facing us all. We should worry about those, not the non-existent threats being espoused by a few mis-informed people.

The Large Hadron Collider is not a threat to the planet. If you hear people spreading rumors about it, let them know the facts. Ignorance is not bliss in this case, but leads to needless worry and energy spent on tilting at windmills instead of at true enemies.

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