Posted by: Staff | 10.10.2008

The Large Hadron Collider (or Holy Crap, But Not Really)

MICHAEL FIRER ’09 and GABBY GUTMAN ’11

In mid-September, the world almost came to an end. Only not really. Maybe, just sort of, but not quite. What did happen was that a lot of nerds were very, very nervous. Why was that? Why, because of the Large Hadron Collider, of course. Say hello to just one tiny portion of the LHC.


I like to call her Elle, or Ol’ Collidy.

The LHC is a huge particle accelerator buried under the border of Switzerland and France that’s been in the works for about 25 years. How huge is it? It’s 17 miles long, and it’s only trying to speed up microscopic particles. The purpose is to smash protons together at nearly the speed of light. Ah, atom-smashing. This could lead to a slew of new, important discoveries, possibly including the existence of the Higgs boson, sparticles, supersymmetry, and dark matter, only one of which I’ve ever heard of before skimming the Wikipedia article for the LHC. This is a major step forward for physics, but of course, someone always just has to have a problem with it.

If the nervous nerds are to be believed, the LHC could lead to the end of the world. You see, colliding atoms is what caused the Big Bang. The Big Bang that filled the universe with everything it has today. The Big Bang that would have completely obliterated any existing universe in creation of a new one if there had been anything out there in the first place.

Or maybe it’s the black hole these colliding particles could create that would suck in the earth and destroy it instantly. A black hole could theoretically be created, and we’ve all seen enough science fiction movies to know not to trust portals to oblivion. Then there’s the strangelets. Oh, and let’s not forget the magnetic monopoles. Beginning to see the problem?

But of course, who ever listens to what the nerds have to say? Two safety reviews, as well as the American Physical Society, have declared the LHC a-okay. Unabated, three nerds stepped up to the plate. Well, okay, I’ll admit, they have some credentials: Walter L. Wagner, a botanist and former radiation safety officer, Otto Rössler, a biochemist, and Luis Sancho, a science writer (whatever that means). Anyway, the three of them took the issue to court, ignoring the fact that the collider would run a test just over a week later. As they fought to have the LHC shut down, a test was run on September 10th with a beam of protons moving in only one direction. In other words, no collisions just yet.

Then, on September 19th, the nerds had a reason to be relieved: the connection between two magnets that help steer the particles melted, and caused a quench in about 100 magnets, which is when the magnets heat up and lose their superconductivity. This melting led to the leaking of one ton of liquid helium into the beam pipe where the particles travel, and the vacuum condition in the beam pipe was no more. Needless to say, a disaster. The problem should be fixed in November, but as the LHC was going to be shut down for the winter anyway, it won’t be up and running until spring of 2009.

My two cents:
Regardless of the number of people concerned over the potential catastrophes the collider could cause, this delay is more of an impediment to science than much else. The chances of the collider creating black holes or causing anything horrible to happen are essentially none, and those who believe the LHC can destroy the world lack a full grasp on the issue. Not that I understand it all myself, but I’m going to side with the less alarmist, more credible guys here.

Any words, Ol’ Collidy?
“I’ll get you next time, planet!”
Oh, Collidy. You’re so silly.

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Responses

  1. It is interesting to study further details about the collision and its consequences. There are details that have not been considered seriously.

    Stranglets are not the center of my attention, because they are only a hypothetical object, and because they lost their opportunity at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC). The matter here is that the energy inflected to these particles is superior to 10e20 eV (the highest energy ever detected in cosmic rays colliding the Earth) by 8 orders of magnitude.

    So, human kind has never experienced with a so high energy density. It is that a reason to be alert? Check the details at http://you-just-think.blogspot.com/2008/10/cern-black-hole.html … and good luck!


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