Tomorrow, September 10th 2008, the Large Hadron Collider will be switched on.
More precisely, tomorrow a beam of particles will (we hope) be circulated throughout the entire collider for the first time. The first particle beams were initiated about a month ago, to calibrate the whole mechanism to an accuracy of under a billionth of a second. It’ll be another month or so before the first “high-energy” collisions take place, when individual protons (of which your body contains around ten billion billion billion) will be accelerated to over 99.9999% of the speed of light, and then smashed into each other.
To do this requires over 1,600 magnets, and about 96 tonnes of liquid helium to keep them less than two degrees above absolute zero. Once the protons are at top speed, they can traverse the 17-mile circumference of the collider over ten thousand times in a second. They also weigh 7,000 times more (or, rather, have a mass 7,000 times greater) and perceive time itself 7,000 times slower (inasmuch as a proton can “perceive” anything) than if they were just sitting still, due to some freaky Einsteinian shit.
When these two particles, each about one millionth of one millionth of a millimetre across, smash into each other, some unfathomably clever people will peer closely at what happens, and use the information they gather to work out things like what makes stuff have gravity, how many dimensions of space there really are, and what the universe was like 13.7 billion years ago or so, around a trillionth of a second after every piece of matter in existence was concentrated in an infinitely dense point.
I was planning the bulk of this entry to be a rant about people who think the world’s about to end, but I can’t be bothered. Every day for the last couple of weeks, a dozen or so people have been finding my entry Nostradamus Potter and the Deathly Hadron Collider. The search terms “nostradamus all should leave geneva”, “10 september 2008 black hole nostradamus”, “swiss collider nostradamos”, “nostradamus prediction on lhc”, and several others, all very similar, have led people there just today. But I’m much more interested and mind-boggled by the facts about what this machine is, and what it can do. And there’s no conceivable threat based on any actual scientific ideas. I think the people who’ve built this damn thing actually understand how it works, and what it’s going to do, a little more clearly than the people whose protests amount to “Science is scary!” and “Did someone say black holes? Oh noes!” and “But what if they’re wrong?!?”
It seems like a threat because the unknown is scary, and apparently very very small things are scary too. Talk about nanotechnology, and it’s hard to go long without making the mental leap to the idea of tiny robots getting out of control, turning everything into tiny copies of themselves, or some such. It’s an effective horror trope, but worrying about the whole planet being destroyed because you’ve heard someone mention something about black holes (which is as complex as most people’s worries get) is about as useful as using disposable surgical gloves to take your laptop to be disinfected with bleach because it has a virus. Smarter people than me have explained this. Also, Brian Cox thinks you’re a twat. This cartoon is about as likely. You can all stop threatening to kill the scientists who are orders of magnitude cleverer than you and trying to figure out how the Universe works now.
To infer the existence of the Higgs boson would be an awfully big adventure.