The black hole of unknowing
As to global annihilation, I’m stumped. Most of us wouldn’t recognise a strangelet if it casually devoured us in the street
There’s a slim chance – about one in 50 million – that nobody will ever read this article. A physics experiment taking place under the French-Swiss border could theoretically destroy the world first. In late May 2008, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest machine, is expected to begin accelerating single atoms along a 27km-long doughnut-shaped tunnel. Those atoms will then be smashed together at almost the speed of light. The aim is to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang – albeit under European countryside rather than in the empty nothingness of space.
CERN, The European Organization for Nuclear Research, which has built this giant doughnut, hopes its atom-smasher will provide glimpses of the elusive particles that make up atoms – but that might not be all. In his gloomy book, Our Final Hour, Sir Martin Rees, president of the UK’s Royal Society, offers three scenarios by which atom-smashing experiments could go badly awry. They might form tiny black holes or could destabilise empty space. They might also create theoretical quantum objects called ‘strangelets’ able to ‘transform the entire planet Earth into an inert, hyperdense sphere about 100m across’. Yikes.
Before anyone presses the panic button, however, a CERN report that weighs the chances of planetary annihilation has concluded they are too low to worry about. Fifty million to one, in fact. Even Rees admits the black holes don’t keep him awake at night. He’s a bit less sanguine about strangelets.
Yesterday, CERN raced these particles, separately, in both directions successfully. In two to six weeks time they will pursue the ultimate test, colliding these particles to test the "Big Bang" theory.
Canadians have close to $100 million riding on the machine.
Powerful magnets from Quebec will rev up the proton beams that will race around the collider. Canada also contributed to a giant detector, known as ATLAS, at the heart of the collider. And there is a $24-million "computing farm" at TRIUMF, a physics lab tucked in the woods at the University of B.C., hard-wired to ATLAS to handle the deluge of data generated when proton beams start colliding underground later this year.
Will the gamble pay off? "God doesn't play dice," Einstein once stated. Should we? Look out for those stranglets, folks -- as if we have any clue what to look out for... Will we still be around to celebrate Thanksgiving? Will we ever see another Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwaanza?