Monday, June 30, 2008

The end is nigh...???

Two new polls ask the internetting public to evaluate whether the soon-to-go-online Large Hadron Collider is worth the risk of global annihilation that it poses. Actually, as PZ Myers points out, the polls ask the following: "Is the gaint[sic] particle smasher worth the risk?" and "Which do you think is more likely to destroy the world? Human actions or natural disaster?"

I'm hardly any expert on the LHC, but I have watched a lot of SciFi Saturday movies, so I feel that I am more qualified to bloviate on this issue than your average tenured nuclear physicist. And this thing is BIG. Which means it must be powerful in ways we simply cannot understand.
The most powerful atom-smasher ever built could make some bizarre discoveries, such as invisible matter or extra dimensions in space, after it is switched on in August.

But some critics fear the Large Hadron Collider could exceed physicists' wildest conjectures: Will it spawn a black hole that could swallow Earth? Or spit out particles that could turn the planet into a hot dead clump?

Ridiculous, say scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French initials CERN - some of whom have been working for a generation on the $5.8 billion collider, or LHC.

"Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on," said project leader Lyn Evans.

David Francis, a physicist on the collider's huge ATLAS particle detector, smiled when asked whether he worried about black holes and hypothetical killer particles known as strangelets.

"If I thought that this was going to happen, I would be well away from here," he said.

The collider basically consists of a ring of supercooled magnets 17 miles in circumference attached to huge barrel-shaped detectors. The ring, which straddles the French and Swiss border, is buried 330 feet underground.
Damn Swiss. My biggest fear? Those pesky "particles that could turn the planet into a hot dead clump." They really do exist, even if Big Science won't admit the genius of my research. I call them torchyons in honor of the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four, who once rescued me from falling through broken ice.

But enough about that. What does it mean, really, to "destroy the world"? Does the whole not-quite-spherical thing have to blow up, as shown by the classic and infallible astrophysics documentary Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope? Is it enough for all sentient life to be eradicated? All life period? What about pikas? They're cute, so I'd rather keep them around. If the LHC has any chance of killing pikas, let's preemptively bomb Switzerland. Anyway, here's a handy guide to destroying the earth (h/t MrQhuest, whoever you are). I have my doubts that it can be accomplished solely through subatomic particles (unless they come from subspace and are enhanced with trilithium, of course.)

I recall a book by David Brin called Earth (it must have been nonfiction, of course) about a black hole being mistakenly unleashed from a lab in New Zealand (damn Kiwis), and there was also something about nuking Switzerland--gosh, it's like reading a newspaper. It was a pretty good book.

I think I've gotten it all out of my system. I shall now invoke a corollary of Poe's Law and reassure my reader(s) that I am generally being sarcastic. I think critics of the LHC are just jealous that they don't have one as big (damn Swiss).

Still, I'd look out for any rogue gaint particles after August.

And even if the earth is destroyed, it will always exist as long as we remember it.

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