Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Doomsday Machine

by Pa Rock

I wish that I knew more about many subjects, physics being one that is near the top of my list. Several years ago I tried reading Brian Greene's book on string theory, The Elegant Universe, but was unable to plow past the first few chapters. I did catch his televised version later on PBS, and found it much like the ocean - entertaining, yet way too wide and deep for me to fully grasp its meaning. Greene and others are trying to come up with a unified theory of physics that will basically formulize everything and every force in our existence.

One of the tools that physicists have been eagerly awaiting in their quest for a unified theory of physics is the completion of the super collider, also known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which has been under construction deep beneath the surface of the earth near Geneva, Switzerland. It is a seventeen mile circular tunnel, filled with huge magnets and a plethora of scientific gadgetry, that crosses the Swiss and French border in four places. As I understand it, particles (protons) will speed around the LHC in opposite directions, build up lots of speed, and then collide. No one knows for sure what will happen when these particles collide, hence the project's other nickname: the Doomsday Machine.

The theory is that the collision of minute particles in very controlled circumstances, will answer questions that physicists have yet to even think of. Skeptics, however, fear that the results might be catastrophic. One fear expressed by some is that tiny black holes will be created that will grow and eventually swallow the earth and life as we know it.

According to what I have been reading, many believe that if these black holes are created they will dissipate almost instantly. Another group of researchers, however, reasoned that even if the little black holes failed to disappear and instead began to grow, it would take between fifty months and fifty years before they would become large enough to swallow Planet Earth. (Fifty years should work. Isn't that the same kick-the-can-on-down-the-road philosophy that conservatives always use with questions of global warming, conservation, pollution, and our nation's debt? Why get all stressed, they argue - let the grandkids handle it!)

One group has been in Federal Court in the U.S. trying to stop the project based on all of the "what ifs" that scientists can't answer. Of course the U.S. Courts haven't acted, but one is left to wonder if an infusion of "activist judges" could have really saved the world anyway.

The LHC is now complete and it will have it's initial test run next Wednesday, September 10th. It should running at full power by late October.

Mark those calendars and pack light. I'll see you on the other side!

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