Science is Sexy: Will the Large Hadron Collider Blow Us Up?

By Jimmy Rogers (@me)
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

LHC Detector Maybe you’ve heard about the recent controversy over the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. This device, probably the most complex machine ever devised by man, has been the focus of much debate because of its potential to do two things.

  1. Be an enormous waste of money
  2. Create a black hole and annihilate the entire Earth in the process.

Being that we’re all geeks here, I’m not going to focus on the first prospect because science is awesome and we SHOULD spend money on it. No, I’m here today to talk about the far more spectacular failing of the LHC, the potential destruction of our planet.

Is this something we really need to worry about? Are the physicists leading us down a dangerous path? Are the people making accusations just completely off base?

To answer that questions (and provide some much needed comic relief), here’s a clip from a recent Daily Show in which John Oliver “interviews” those in the midst of the debate (US only! For those living in other countries, check out the low-quality youtube clip here):

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Ok, so their take on it was a bit silly, but just to clear things up, the “50/50” guy doesn’t seem to understand basic probability. The odds of something occuring equal the number of times that event will occur out of all possible scenarios in an experiment. If the odds were 1:2 (or 50% probability) and the experiment was run 1000 times, 500 Earth destroying events would occur. The odds of a disaster have been stated to be much much lower than this by scientists evaluating the problem.

While I don’t want to get into an exact numbers game, the basic premise of the scientific conclusions can be laid out conceptually. First of all, if you recall the clip, the LHC is a particle accelerator. It takes very small particles, accelerates them as close to “c” (the speed of light) as possible, and whacks them into each other, head on. The particles explode and bare their constituents to observant physicists (or the computers of those physicists at least).

black-hole Critics fear that such high energy experiments might created the conditions for a brand new black hole. They might not be wrong either. Some work is being done to show how micro black holes (read: microscopic) can form under certain conditions, but these black holes typically dissapate in moments, long before they can pull much of anything into them.

The best argument I have heard for the safety of the LHC came from one of my physics professors in college. If you think about it, there are an enormous number of particles and cosmic rays slamming into one another out in space. This includes the borders of our own atmosphere. As there aren’t a proliferation of black holes hanging out in our solar system, I feel fairly safe replicating an event that apparently happens in nature all the time.

So why bother with all of this particle accelerator stuff anyway? Well, the answer probably deserves its own article, but my short summary is as follows:

  • There is much we don’t understand about particle physics and experimental platforms like the LHC help us get a lot farther down the road.
  • Our physics is reaching a point where the energies and masses required to test it is difficult to replicate on Earth. Only huge facilities like the LHC provide addequate conditions (you may read this to mean that our future will probably involve a lot more observation of galactic phenomena and less direct experimentation).
  • One of the big questions in physics today is “why does matter have mass?” and “how does gravity work in tandem with other forces?” The LHC was built to answer these and other questions.
  • Even if the physics questions fail, the technologies that come out of the project’s construction (like super-high speed data tranfer advances) will have a positive impact on our society as a whole. Think of it as a return on the investment.

For your futher edification, here is Brian Cox in a TED talk about the LHC:

Brian later did another TED talk about why the LHC had to shut down for a while due to a malfunction.

Well, I hope that the world of high energy particle physics is a little less mysterious. Then again, in this field, the more you learn, the less you seem to know! I am by NO MEANS a physicst so I won’t be able to answer tough questions like I did on earlier Science is Sexy pieces. That being said, feel free to discuss in the comments or hit me up on Twitter.

[LHC image under GNU Free Documentation Liscence | Black Hole image from The Same Rowdy Crowd]