Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's the end of the world as we know it...

Well, my blogger address is "the end is always near", and although it just happened to be a line from a Doors' song going around in my head while I signed up, I figured it was high time to post something to do with the topic. So, how might the world end in the near future you may be asking yourself? I'm not talking about aliens, or meteor strikes here, I mean us doing it to ourselves. Terrorists? It's gotta be those guys. The Chinese or Russians, they could do it, no? How about another Pakistan-India war, this time featuring nuclear strikes? No way! It's the French! Well, sorta. At least it's a group of scientists using a French name to form the acronym CERN. That's Conseil europenne pour la recherche nuclaire. Today it's known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (yes, everything's in English nowadays) and it's main area of research is particle physics — the study of the fundamental constituents of matter and the forces acting between them.

Before you laugh about the thought of a bunch of physics geeks destroying the world consider what these guys have done in the past, often putting the whole world in jeopardy. Possibly the most famous event surrounded the Manhattan Project. In reality no one knew exactly what would happen when the first bomb was detonated on July 16th, 1945 at 11:29:45 GMT somewhere in the desert of New Mexico. In fact a betting pool was set up on the results of the test where predictions ranged from nothing would happen to ignition of the atmosphere and incineration of the entire planet. (The bet was won by a physicist named I.I. Rabi) Of course we know that the test was a "success" and energy equivalent to about 20 kilotons of TNT was released. No problem, unless of course you lived in Hiroshima or Nagasaki a few weeks later.

The physicists are no longer only interested in the building blocks of our universe, now they want to find out more about the origins of everything around us. Turn the clock back about 13.7 billion years, if you will, to see what it was like just before everything came about. There are two ways that I can explain what they are doing; simple and slightly less simple. In simple terms, they've built a ginormous (gigantic+enormous) scientific instrument near Geneva, in a cave about 100m underground that spans Switzerland and France. This machine will fire subatomic particles from opposite directions at each other hoping that the smash will recreate conditions that existed moments after the Big Bang. Hopefully this will allow them to learn more about what the universe is made of. Now skip the next paragraph if you don't need to read the slightly less simple explanation.

The Standard Model is the best explanation that physicists have of the 12 basic building blocks of the universe (they have names like charm quark, muon and tau, check it out) and their relationship with three fundamental forces. The problem is there are four of these forces, with gravity being the odd one out. Turns out that this isn't a big deal when trying to describe the subatomic world as it is the weakest of the forces at this level. However, this isn't the only problem with the theory. It also relies on an assumption that all force carrying particles have no mass, which doesn't seem possible. Enter Peter Higgs, Robert Brout and François Englert who came up with the theory that all particles had no mass just after the Big Bang and as the universe cooled an invisible field now called the 'Higgs field' was formed together with 'Higgs boson'. This field is everywhere and all particles are given their mass through their interaction with it and therefore the more they interact, the heavier they become. It is the search for the source of all mass in the universe, 'Higgs boson', or as some have labelled it "the God Particle", that scientists hope to be able to observe through their experiments with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) beneath the border between Switzerland and France, somewhere near Geneva. In effect, they are hoping to create a time machine. Other questions they are hoping to answer regard anti-matter, dark matter and dark energy. This isn't Star Trek or Star Wars, this could all happen in the next few months.

All sounds well and good, but apparently there's a hitch. Some people have suggested that smashing protons into each other at speeds 99.999999% of light could cause problems. Specifically they fear the creation of micro black holes, and get ready for this, something called strangelets, which would convert the Earth into a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter". In order to stop the experiments a lawsuit was filed March 21 in Federal District Court.... in Honolulu, yes, Hawaii. They are seeking a temporary restraining order to prohibit CERN from proceeding with their experiments until they have produced a safety report and an environmental assessment. Similar fears to those today were raised when the Brookhaven National Laboratory Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (?!), the world's most powerful particle accelerator at the time, went online in Long Island, New York. Some people predicted that it too would create mini black holes that would grow and engulf the whole world, predictions that obviously haven't come true. Of course CERN claims that this is completely safe and in fact devoted most of the safety page of it's web site to debunking these doomsday possibilities. Read it for yourself and tell me if you agree that it sounds somehow forced, something doesn't seem quite right... Call it a gut feeling, but I'll be watching for the date when they fire this beast up (or more accurately cool it down) and keeping my fingers crossed.


Troy said...

Why should they worry about 14 billion years ago when we all know that the earth was created by a big bearded man about 6000 years ago with his first creation, Adam, being made of mud and later Eve out of his rib. Silly scientists!