Commentary: End of the world postponed
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 17, 2008 - As an inveterate columnist, I'd never allow a trifling detail like virtual ignorance of the subject matter to interfere with an insightful commentary. That said, let's proceed to today's topic, which just happens to be sub-atomic nuclear physics.
The issue is the CERN Large Hardon Collider (LHC) buried some 100 meters beneath the Swiss-French border. The question is whether experiments under way will result in the total destruction of the Earth. The short answer to that one is "probably not."
The LHC is a huge circular tunnel constructed at a cost of some $10 billion by the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It was designed to re-enact conditions of the "Big Bang" -- the theorized primordial explosion thought by physicists to be the birth of the cosmos. The United States, which is not technically a European nation but whose government hates to miss out on a large expenditure, contributed $531 million to the effort.
Once fully operational, the collider will propel protons around the track at velocities approaching the speed of light. At maximum power, these particles will traverse their 17-mile orbit almost 11,000 times per second. In round numbers, we're talking about 186,000 miles per second. The geeks have left NASCAR in their dust.
CERN has recently succeeded in propelling a proton beam around the circuit in a clockwise direction. The next goal is to do so in counter-clockwise fashion. But certain glitches developed and now the collider will be shut down until spring 2009 while engineers examine a magnet failure.
Once traffic has been established independently in both directions, scientists can then ramp up to full power and release the counter-posed beams simultaneously.
The resultant collisions between protons traveling at these incredible speeds are predicted to re-enact conditions at the moment of creation. Anticipated by-products include dark matter, anti-matter, strange matter, the Higgs boson -- the hypothesized, but as yet unobserved, "God particle" thought to give mass to all the matter in the universe -- and a host of other things you and I don't know much about.
Needless to say, the pocket-protector set is ecstatic. Unfortunately, these collisions may also create black holes.
Though most scientists insist these experiments are perfectly safe, a minority predict that they could create microscopic black holes -- pockets of gravitation so intense that even light rays cannot escape their pull. These phenomena have the unfortunate tendency to consume the matter around them. In the case of CERN, that would be the continent of Europe -- at least initially.
World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking believes the artificial creation of black holes to be "unlikely." Any that might result, he contends, would be highly unstable and would evaporate within microseconds of their birth. Of course, he confessed last year that his teachings had been mistaken about a central characteristic of black holes. It took him 31 years to discover that error, so let's hope he's on the money this time.
Researching this matter on the Internet, I found several comforting probability quotes from proponents of the experiments. These placed the odds of global destruction at anywhere from 1 in 50 million to 1 in 3 trillion.
While I don't know a hell of a lot about theoretical physics, I can read a tote board. Though I wouldn't want to book action against either of the odds quoted above, the first makes the chances of cataclysm about 60,000 times more likely than the second. A skeptic might wonder if the eggheads aren't just making up big numbers to placate the yokels.
The simple truth is that nobody really knows what will happen when these lightening collisions occur. That's why the experiments are taking place: to see what will happen. You're unlikely to get a research grant to study the effects of jumping off your roof because the physics of that event are well understood. Billions were invested in this project precisely because the physics involved are a mystery.
Given the stakes -- the complete and utter destruction of the Earth -- wouldn't some sort of public debate of the issue seem appropriate? We celebrate our democratic right to vote on whether Sarah Palin is qualified to attend state funerals in third world nations, but when it comes to the possibility of total annihilation, we rely on the kindness of technocratic strangers.
And it may be worth remembering that most of these whiz kids went through high school surrendering their lunch money to bullies and getting shoved into the girl's locker room with their pants around their ankles by laughing jocks. It's possible that a few of them have unresolved issues. This project could prove to be the ultimate revenge of the nerds.
Admittedly, the CERN research could eventually lead to breakthroughs that render fossil fuels obsolete and provide the power for starships. But if the collider turns out to be a nuclear version of the Tower of Babel, the results are going to leave you quite literally speechless.
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.