Sunday, September 7, 2008
Official Odds on CERN Large Hadron Collider Doomsday Black Hole: 99-1
So, some physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) decided that it might be fun to build a $10,000,000,000 toy called the Large Hadron Collider that shoots particles into each other at speeds which result in temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the sun, with the hope of discovering some new particles, micro black holes, and possibly extra dimensions. Its a sweet idea, to be sure. Theres just one problem: an itsy bitsy teeny tiny weenie meanie little chance that when they turn the thing on this Wednesday, they might create a black hole that eats up our entire solar system. That sure would be a bummer, dude.
Personally Im 99% sure they wont turn us all into cosmic dust. Im so sure, in fact, Im taking all bets at a 99-1 payout structure. You bet $1 that our planet will implode, and if it does, you win $99. I cant really accept wagers larger than $10,000 at this time for various legal reasons, unless you are paying in large unmarked bills.
But in all seriousness, I think we need to consider for a moment one of the reasons it is worth taking risks in science at all. See, we are currently stuck on this planet. We cant get off it and go live somewhere else if our lives depended on it. And thats a problem for the survival of ours and every other species on this planet. Recently I read an article that was discussing the likelyhood of other intelligent species living on planets in other galaxies, and they put the figure at something close to 100%. Given the number of galaxies in the universe (estimated 100-500 billion), the number of stars in each galaxy (500 billion average) and from what we have observed just on Earth, Mars, and the Moon, its almost a certainty that there is intelligent, civilized, technologically advanced life on other planets. So why didnt they ever find us? Playing the the newly release PC game Spore has certainly made me reconsider this question recently.
Sadly, the answer is that its very likely the advanced species never quite figured out how to make it out of their solar system, let alone their galaxy, and they died there. Just with basic rocket propulsion, you can boost around the solar system, but to actually escape the confines of our sun and make it to Alpha Centuari, we need to travel for 4.3 years at the speed of light. Its not possible with any current technology and may never be if we dont dedicate ourselves to uncovering the secrets of the universe. We cant let fear of the unknown stop us from advancing our understanding of physics, or any other science for that matter.
Sure, there is an incredibly small chance the physicists at CERN, no matter how brilliant and well-intentioned they are, made a grave miscalulation, and the mini black holes they seek to produce actually turn into planet eating ones. But if we dont unlock these secrets, and advance our understanding of the universe, our species is doomed to extinction on the floating rock we call Earth. It may not happen anytime soon, and its possible we may kill each other first, but I dont think the dinosaurs planned on a massive asteroid hitting earth either. Getting off our planet is only one of a myriad of problems and challenges that humanity faces, which science and science only can solve. If we want to overcome them, the general public must overcome its fear of science, and of things like stem-cell research, evolution, and high energy particle physics experiments - because these things are essential to a progressive civilization.
Although they are not studying propulsion technology at CERN, the results of their experiments could change they way we look at physics entirely. If the physicists at CERN were able to observe black holes, it would imply that we are actually living in at least 5 dimensions - that there is an entire underbelly to the universe which we cannot see and traditional physics cannot directly explain, but implies its necessary existence. The LHC's main goal is to fill the gaps that currently exist in the Standard Model, the grand theory governing the subatomic structure of the universe. That may mean finding traces of extra dimensions, or a whole new class of supersymmetric particles, or the causes behind dark matter and dark energy.
Filling the scientific gaps would almost certainly include getting a fix on the Higgs boson, which some physicists have dubbed the "God particle." The Higgs is the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that hasn't yet been found, and it could hold the key to understanding why some particles (like protons) have mass while others (like photons) do not. If you understand why some particles have mass and why some do not, you are that much closer to several next generation technologies which have only been speculated about up until this point, only one of which is new proulsion technology. Rocketry is not the apex of proulsion technology, its merely one point along the axis upwards towards travelling at the speed of light.
If you are interested in reading more about this subject, I can direct you for starters to an interview with Michelangelo Mangano, one of the physicists at CERN, who explains why the micro-black holes dont pose a threat to humanity, as well as several other interesting subjects regarding the LHC. The machine has been undergoing test runs and will begin its first real operation on Wednesday, September 10th, although the super high energy tests wont begin until October.
But just in the off chance that something goes wrong, its been fun knowing you all. You can collect your bets on the other side, just make sure to bring a photo ID.