Doomsday Postponed

The Earth has received a stay of execution due to the failure of some really big superconducting magnets at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Any of you who were concerned that the collision of high energy particles at the LHC would produce a black hole to swallow the earth, including the fine people at, can breathe a sigh of relief, at least until the spring.

Of course, if physicist Walter Wagner is correct, even if a black hole is created it would be an unspecified amount of time before it became apparent. This could be a problem for Long Bets, where Joe Keane and Nick Damiano are facing off on the issue for a cool grand, payable to the winner’s favourite charity, as Long Bets is only allowing for 10 years for the Earth to be destroyed. If and when that happens, Damiano will have to donate $1000 to the National Rifle Association. Or would have to, were it not for the non-existence of all parties.

So what’s with all this potentially Earth-destroying particle colliding anyway? I suppose it goes back to the ancient Greeks, and a fellow named Democritus who believed in these really small things he called atomos, or atoms. The name means “uncuttable,” can’t be divided, this is a small as it goes and that’s that, forget about conceiving of anything smaller because atomos is by definition the smallest. He posited that they made up everything and that the differing qualities of the different atoms was what gave different things their properties. It all came down to the atoms.

Lovely thinkers, the ancient Greeks, really good with theory. And a good theory could last for centuries, because they had very little interest in experimentation. It was a quieter, more idyllic time when a lovely theory was fairly safe from molestation by an ugly fact.

Then the dark ages came and not much mattered anyway except trying not to die of the plague, or in Islamic countries, maths. Then Galileo supposedly dropped a couple things of different masses off the Leaning Tower of Pisa and, in the time it took for the objects to fall and land at the same time, killed one of those lovely theories. (I think it may have belonged to Aristotle.) That story may be apocryphal, but it reflects the revolution that began when we actually started to try to prove things through experimentation.

Then they built the LHC. (Okay, there were some other things in between by people like Newton and Einstein and Maxwell and Pauli and others, but this is a short piece, so I’m going to skip a bit.) The point is, they didn’t do it on a lark. The reason we landed a man on the moon and the ancient Greeks didn’t is that modern science places high value on confirmation of theory through experimentation. There’s no rule that you can’t theorize in advance of experimental support, but a theory without that support is essentially starving for it.

Hence the Large Hadron Collider. The Standard Model of physics is starving for evidence of the Higgs boson, a component of the model which explains why particles have mass, and thus rather important. The LHC could produce this evidence. If it doesn’t, it’s still not a waste of money, as that would cast doubt on the Standard Model itself and generate a flurry of activity which may recast or even, eventually, replace it. Stephen Hawking has bet a hundred dollars that the Higgs boson won’t be found, much to the annoyance of Peter Higgs, whose name the particle bears. If it is found not to exist, that will itself be a useful scientific advance, in the same way that jettisoning the idea of ether once was.

I think it’s worthwhile to understand this scientific context if we’re to avoid the impression that the physicists at CERN are a bunch of blinkered, arrogant, self-appointed demigods playing dice with the fate of the world. Yes, by their own admission there is a chance of catastrophe, but it is infinitesimally small. Some would like guarantees that it is absolutely safe before proceeding, but that’s not going to happen, as absolute guarantees aren’t possible from scientists undertaking something that has never been done before, at least not on this scale. Those who don’t regard the advancement of scientific knowledge with regard to something as central as the Standard Model as important may not be satisfied with even extremely small risk, but fortunately the very existence of the LHC, and CERN itself, is testimony that there are those who do. Namely the Europeans, bless them.

BBC has an interesting overview of the bits and pieces that make up the LHC, and the following vid provides a very clear picture of the path the particles take through it.

Or if you learn better from rap, check it:

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