Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Particle colliders give me a "large hadron"

So, if you haven't checked your calendar recently, today is September 10, which means that at 7:32 Greenwich Mean Time, they switched on the ol' LHC, which if you haven't religiously followed this blog or read particle physics journals over the last few months (and if you haven't, come on, what's wrong with you?) stands for the Large Hadron Collider. That means this huge atom smasher has now begun firing up for its first attempts to destroy the earth find out what matter is made of.

So, what is it, you may ask?
Well, "it" is a gender-neutral pronoun used in the English language to refer to a previously specified object - but that's not important right now. Let's stay on topic.

The Large Hadron Collider, on the other hand, is a few things:
1) A 17-mile-diameter series of tubes, a lot like the internet, except it's used to smash tiny atoms and subatomic particles together at relativistic (near-light) speeds.
2) The name of a porn video I saw a long time ago, I think.  It "had Ron" Jeremy in it (zing!).  Oh was "Large Hardon Collider."
3) Something that is fairly likely to destroy the world, and even has a small probability of destroying the entire universe. Oh, yeaahh!

Below are a couple of photos of this bad boy.  On the left is an aerial shot of the border between France and Switzerland where the big ring is located.  On the right is the belly of the beast itself: a big ol' tube lined with supercooled superconducting magnets used to accelerate protons, lead ions, and the like to ridiculous speeds.

LHC photos

Eventually, this huge device will be used to cause "large hadrons," which are actually extremely small, to collide at near light speed.  When these collide, the hadrons should break apart, releasing particles, energy, and other things that the LHC will try to detect.  One of the main theories physicists are aiming to prove is string theory: the idea that matter, light, gravity, and everything else is composed of subatomic strings that vibrate in 11 dimensions.  Duh!  Do we really need an experiment to tell us that?  What else could all that stuff be composed of other than 11th dimension vibrating strings, Captain Obvious?

Anyway, when the collisions start happening, the scene at the LHC might look something like this:
LHC discoveries

What will the LHC find?  Likely candidates include the Higgs boson (which may or may not be the reason matter has mass), supersymmetry (which would give us insight into the validity of many quantum theories), dark matter, micro black holes, new subatomic particles, and other things nobody guessed.  Of course, despite all the theories, nobody really knows exactly what will come out of the LHC.  For all we know, it might even produce some of this crazy stuff.

The ridiculous thing is that a lot of scientists actually believe the LHC could produce micro black holes.  This is no reason to worry however, they say, because these black holes will theoretically evaporate via Hawking radiation before they can grow to any considerable size.  Theoretically.

Otherwise, something like the following might play out...

Scientist 1: "Oh no!  It's a black hole!"
Scientist 2: "Not to worry. It's only a micro black hole. It's not stable and will evaporate in less than a second. Even if it doesn't evaporate, it will escape the earth's gravity. Even if it doesn't escape the earth's gravity, it will take millions of years to accrete enough matter to kill us.  M'kay?"
Scientist 1: "Got it.  Let's keep smashing hadrons."
LHC black hole
Scientist 1: "Oh no! The black hole got bigger!  It's going to kill us all!"
Scientist 2: "Whoopsy daisy! Looks like I put a decimal point in the wrong place or something.   I was hopped up on a bunch of Vicodin for my bad back the week I came up with those formulas.  My bad!"
Scientist 1: "I'm going to kill you!"
Scientist 2: "No, the black hole is going to kill me, and it's also going to kill you. Sorry about that, chief!"
Scientist 1: "Stop calling me 'chief,' guy!"
Scientist 2: "Stop calling me 'guy,' chief!"
(black hole consumes the entire planet)

Alien 1: "Awesome! The poor bastards never saw it coming!"
Alien 2: "Come on, dude. That ended exactly the same way as 'Large Hadron Collider 16: Planet Gzyxqiofn of the Crab Nebula.' So unoriginal. This series is really starting to circle the drain."
Aliens watching the LHC
Alien 1: "Well, so much for Earth.  I say good riddance - that place was a real dump.  I'm going to miss 'Buffalo This' though."
Alien 2: "I'm not. That guy was an idiot. Hey, let's get out of here before that black hole spaghettifies us."
Alien 1: "Oh yeah, good idea."

Now I've already heard people say things today along the lines of, "Phew, we're still here!  Looks like there was no reason to worry about the LHC after all!"  Not so fast, Einstein.  It wasn't simply turning on the machine that was supposed to destroy the earth.  They haven't even started colliding particles yet and won't begin doing so for at least a few weeks.  Even then, they won't be using the full power of the machine; the collisions will get increasingly powerful through the rest of 2008 and into 2009.  Every time the power is ramped up, we enter a new and uncharted realm of particle collisions with uncertain consequences.  In the case of a strangelet disaster or vacuum metastability event, we'll find out that something has gone wrong immediately, and by "find out that something has gone wrong," I really mean "all die."  In the case of a stable micro black hole that gradually eats away at the earth, we may not know about it for months, years, or much longer.  So it could be a long, long time before we conclusively know the answer to the big question: Will the LHC kill us all?  If it's any comfort to you, I've got $500 that says it doesn't.


The Archiphage said...

How did those proposed aliens avoid the fate of all the other civilizations they deride? They just got all this neato whizz-bang hyperrelativistic interstellar travel tech without doing their own planet-vaporizing high energy physics experiments?
Also, I find the economics pretty interesting. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent on massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons by the US and USSR... weapons which would only imperfectly destroy much of the biosphere even if set off simultaneously. And here the Swiss in cahoots with the reviled French have a nonzero chance of utterly destroying all matter in the Universe for a mere few billion Euro. I'm sure the damned Francophile lefties will be (erroneously as usual)touting this as an additional example of the superiority of the soft socialism of Western Europe.

Nick said...

Excellent catch - you have revealed what appears to be a gaping plot hole in the story. However, you can rest assured that it is not. At the risk of alienating (pun intended) the non-nerd contingent of the readers of this blog, I'm going to explain to you two ways those aliens might have pulled it off. Here goes...

It does seem that the findings of the LHC will likely be an essential step in the long path to making interstellar travel feasible.

1) Do it somewhere other than the planet they live on.
For example, we could do this thing in space or on Pluto (and not even have to supercool) or even on Mars, and survive a black hole if it were created. A lot of people have the wrong idea about black holes: they're not active seek-and-destroy killing machines, they're just a lot of gravity centered at a single point. If Mars turned into a black hole, it wouldn't suck Earth in any more than Mars is sucking Earth in now. Now you may be thinking that launching these things into orbit would be prohibitively expensive. Maybe it would be - but what if the aliens' solar system had two Earth-like, easily inhabitable planets? If we did, you can bet your ass we'd already be living on both. In this case, they can afford to destroy one and still survive. Furthermore, they could still get the knowledge from the collider because the black hole would take a long time to destroy whatever planet it was on - and if it were in space, it would just fly off harmlessly and evaporate in the vacuum.

As for the strangelet scenario, they may have to be a little farther away (Pluto would probably still work), but if the collider were located in deep space, it's likely that the strangelets produced would just fly off into space without causing any problems.

As for the false vacuum scenario...well, you're screwed either way there. But come on, that seems really unlikely, even to a pathological doomsayer like myself. If it were possible, one would have killed us already.

2) Invent artificial intelligence before creating a LHC.
We may be only 20 years from this, and the LHC experiments probably aren't necessary to create it. The AI, which will soon become MUCH smarter than humans, if it doesn't kill us all, might be able to either (a) solve string theory and these other mysteries mathematically or in some way that doesn't involve a LHC, or (b) provide a way to conduct the experiment safely (e.g. something that neutralizes dangerous particles, or an easy/cheap way to get the collider into space or to another planet).

So you could imagine that the aliens probably followed one of these two paths, allowing them to zip around the universe with a million years' supply of popcorn enjoying other civilizations' LHC debacles as they happened.

In response to your other point, sadly it does seem that the French - I mean Freedom - are leading the Destroy the Earth and Maybe Even the Entire Universe Race, which is the new Space Race. If it's any consolation, at least they won't be around to enjoy their victory if they win.

Nick said...

A third possibility is that they're made of dark matter and this somehow allows either much easier relativistic travel or LHCs that don't destroy them. There is quite a shitload of DM in the universe after all.

The Archiphage said...

Yes, those possibilities do make the LHC a somewhat less viable candidate for Great Filter, which is automatically brought to mind anytime aliens appear in the context of physics experiments thanks to the namesake of the American answer to the evil CERN... that being Fermilab named for Enrico Fermi, of course.

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