Monday, April 27, 2009

Big Bang Reloaded

It is now official: in a somewhat embarrassed statement, scientists recently declared that Earth will not be swallowed up by the tiny black holes that could be created this summer at CERN. Akin to the paranoia of 1910, when the media forewarned on the destruction of the planet due to the gaseous tail of Halley’s comet, the switching-on of the largest-ever experiment in physics has made news mostly by grace of its hypothetical potential to end it all in one big flash. A group of concerned citizens in Hawaii has filed a lawsuit requesting an injunction to stop CERN immediately. So is this the vainglorious return of human hubris to be stopped before it’s too late? Are scientists, like the ever-curious Pandora, about to open the proverbial box and let all hell break loose?

The European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) is a wonder of international collaboration. Situated at the Franco-Swiss border it has been a beacon of scientific excellence since its establishment after the WWII, churning out not only insights into the workings of subatomic nature but also fabulous inventions like the World Wide Web. During the past twenty years CERN has been abuzz with an army of scientists, engineers, technicians and workers putting together the largest, most complex project ever built. It is called the Large Hardon Collider (LHC) and its purpose is to explore the edge of our understanding about nature.
The LHC is a particle smasher in the shape of a hollow ring 27km in length, dug 100m underground. Inside this ring neutrons and protons, the elementary particles that make up the nuclei of atoms, will be accelerated by means of strong magnetic fields. Once they reach 99.99% of the speed of light they will be made to smash into each other. The particle debris that will result will be awash with exotic things scientists are dying to explore; evidence of extra dimensions, mysterious traces of the dark matter that is supposed to pervade the universe, the infamous Higg’s boson which gives mass to everything. The LHC will offer us a glimpse of the universe when it was only one millionth of a second old. In this sense, it is also a time machine which will take us back to the beginning of time.

A tremendous amount of information will come out of LHC, and the next big challenge for scientists will be to record, analyze and, ultimately, make sense of it. To help them, four extremely sophisticated detectors, placed at certain points along the ring, will act like huge cameras taking snapshots of the disintegrating particles. The biggest one - aptly named ATLAS - will have to process data equivalent to 50 billion phone calls made at the same time!
The late physicist Victor Weiss was right to call underground particle colliders the “gothic cathedrals of the 20th century”. The LHC is pushing our technology to its limits, has required the combined craftsmanship and ingenuity of thousands of workers and it has taken decades of collective, single-minded commitment from conception to completion. But there is another aspect in the simile that I find even more inspiring. Like the cathedrals of the medieval past the LHC is the modern temple of worship of the ultimate forces that have created us. Scientists may not call it God but, in essence, is the same: recreating the Big Bang in this magnificent mega-lab will not only enhance our scientific understanding but will also provide the moral justification for our technological civilization. It will demonstrate that technology is not merely utilitarian but, like art, music and literature, it underpins the spiritual fabric that makes life worth living. The 10 billion Euros spent to build LHC are therefore the best - and wisest - investment we taxpayers of the western world have ever made.

So what about those tiny black holes? True, Stephen Hawking has predicted that they will be part of the debris. Buy will they suck up everything around them and start growing fast till they eat up the planet? Virtually impossible, or – to be more scientifically precise – equally probable with a firedragon materializing inside CERN’s cafeteria one late winter evening. Earth is bombarded daily with cosmic rays which are scales of magnitude greater than the energies at LHC, creating billions of tiny black holes every second, and yet we are all still here. If Hawking is right, those pussycat black holes are nothing like their roaring lion cousins that lounge in the centre of galaxies and eat up stars. They live for a fleeting moment and then vanish by radiating away all their energy. At least that is what Hawking is theorizing and, if proven right, he will be snatching one of the Nobel prizes expected to varnish the great discoveries to be made at CERN in the next few years. Stay tuned and fear not. Planet Earth is safe.

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