So they fired up the Large Hadron Collider today, the gigantic particle accelerator 150m deep beneath a not-small chunk of Switzerland and France. Despite some people’s expectations, and as no-doubt a great disappointment to the media, the world and the planet did not explode out of existence. Last I checked anyhoo.
There, was however the possibility of it. At least in theory, sort of. The possibility that a particle collision could trigger a chain reaction inadvertently hitting the “delete” key on all matter in the planet/universe. Like a black hole version of ice9.
Being, to a fault, precise people by nature, the best the good physicists at Cern would admit is that such a reaction was “very unlikely”. Much to their consternation, a lot of lay-people didn’t seem to find comfort in what a proper physicist would wryly explain as “very unlikely”.
If you are wondering, here’s how our guide explained it to us. The sun every second produces a gidgiazoolian (I forget the exact unit) times more high energy particles than CERN ever will in it’s lifetime. Every second these solar particles are slamming into, for example, objects the size of the moon. And in the 4.5 billion years the sun has been doing that, no catastrophic universe-destroying reaction has occurred. Empirically, this evidence suggests that the existence of the universe is reasonably pretty and reasonably resistant to accidental self destruction. The logic then follows that most probability one more particle beam won’t tip the probability scales over the edge. Hence what a physicist means by “very unlikely”.
Why is the LHC so cool? It’s basically a giant race track for tiny subatomic particles that scientists can use to study and drill into the very heart of matter. Particle experiments have been going on for a long time at CERN, the LHC is just the latest and largest accelerator to be built there.
As a researcher you can go to CERN and rent “beam time” small or large portions of the accelerator to do all kinds of experiments. For example there is some cool work being done there to study how solar radiation on cloud formation affects cloud formation climate change on earth.
And then there are the big questions, to find out the universe is really made of and to enhance our fundamental understanding of physics.
Sez the super awesome Brian Cox, for one thing if the theories are right, and Higgs Boson is really the particle that gives mass to all matter in the universe, then the LHC will find it.
Thanks btw to Laurent and Lift over the years for the chance to learn about and visit the LHC. Truly inspiring!