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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.

Fucking hell.

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.

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Quick informal poll: whose your favourite French sixteenth century apothecary ever? For me, there’s only one candidate even in the running, and that’s Michel de Nostredame.

My friend Sara linked me to this story earlier, in which one of the aforementioned judicial astrologer’s quatrains is quoted. The writer (and I use the term loosely) of the article asks us to consider whether this prophecy might warn that the Large Hadron Collider – the massively exciting particle accelerator soon to begin operating at CERN in Switzerland – is going to destroy the world and kill us all.

The prophecy reads as follows:

All should leave Geneva.
Saturn turns from gold to iron,
The contrary positive ray (RAYPOZ) will exterminate everything,
There will be signs in the sky before this.

My first thought on glancing at it was that this wasn’t even a real Nostradamus quatrain. After 9/11, certain entirely fake quatrains were attributed to him, as if he’d predicted the attacks on the World Trade Centre with much greater accuracy and specificity than was actually contained in anything he’d said. It seemed plausible that someone might have essentially fictionalised something similar in this case, to add to all the doomsaying surrounding the LHC.

But no, I was wrong. What’s quoted above is actually the 44th quatrain of the ninth “century” (sets of one hundred prophecies into which they were grouped) written by Nostradamus. Well… sort of.

It’s not simply been made up, anyway, but it is a very loose translation. This makes it very easy for the article to ponder how all this might relate to the LHC. I mean, it’s in Geneva, and a “contrary positive ray” sounds like something a particle accelerator might have, right? And turning gold to iron, that’s… well, that’s chemistry, in a sort of reverse-alchemy type sense, which still sounds like science, right? Which means we’re all doomed! Oh noes!

It doesn’t actually say any of that as such, of course. It just asks “what-if” type questions and tells us that “there are those would theorise [sic]”, in the kind of way that suggests that it’s just something fun to think about and not to be taken too seriously, but it’d be closed-minded and arrogant of you to call it out as being total bollocks.

Well, you don’t scare me. This is utter bollocks.

What Michel actually wrote was this:

Migrés, migrés de Geneue trestous,
Saturne d’or en fer se changera:
Le contre Raypoz exterminera tous,
Auant l’aduent le ciel signes fera.

My French is a little rusty, but this place seems to have a pretty thorough dissection, so let’s take it line by line.

As far as getting the hell out of Geneva is concerned, there’s not much ambiguity.

In the next line, Saturne could apparently also be translated as: “The sky”. I’m not entirely clear why this should be (though in ancient mythology Saturn was the son of Ouranos, the sky-god), but it’s thought that the sky changing colour is a reference to chemical war – suitably apocalyptic, perhaps, but bugger all to do with a black hole being created and swallowing up the planet. Saturne is simply translated as “Saturn” here and here, but this doesn’t do much to make the line any more relevant to the LHC.

More interesting than this is something that must have shorted out my bullshit detector the first time I skimmed the article. I’ve only just noticed the conclusion they’ve drawn from this: “‘Saturn turns from gold to iron’ surely refers to a transmutation of elements, or maybe even a black hole created that will fly off into space and land on the planet Saturn, turning Saturn into a black hole.”

Something this retarded deserves a moment of silent contemplation.

A black hole “that will fly off into space and land on the planet Saturn” (emphasis mine). I’m no Bad Astronomer (more of a plain old bad astronomer, if I’m honest), but even I can see that this is painfully, comically stupid, and I hope the hack who came up with this piece has a shard of glass from his computer monitor fly off into space and land on an artery in his hand the next time he sits down to type up something this moronic. (Not really. It’s a joke used for humourous effect.) They’re already having to stretch Nostradamus’s words to breaking point and still they can’t say anything to predict danger more sensibly than this.

And as we see on the third line, they really are stretching it. As far as I can tell, the translation “contrary positive ray” is entirely fanciful, based solely on some English words that sound a bit like the word (Raypoz) that the French guy wrote in the middle of a load of French words. It’s only terminologically accurate in referring to anything about the LHC in the faintest sense, and it seems unlikely this would have any bearing on anything Nostradamus is likely to have meant.

The best suggestion that I could be bothered to find about Raypoz itself is that it’s a corruption of Ray (as in light) and Pax or Paz (as in peace), and in fact refers to Christ (the “light and peace”). So, “Le contre Raypoz” refers to the anti-Christ. This makes some sense, inasmuch as it’s not out of character for Nostradamus to be making predictions about the anti-Christ. Granted, the guy who suggested this in the article I’m reading on the site Nostradamia could be less of a learned academician, and more of a nut who actually takes all this crap seriously, but he’s the guy with what seems like the most coherent explanation so far.

And then, signs in the sky, yadda yadda. This could be anything. Literally anything remotely unusual, anywhere in the sky – from aircraft activity to the behaviour of stars billions of light years away – could be interpreted as being a “sign”, if that’s what you want to prove. There’s nothing useful about telling us something this vague. Actual scientists – you know, people whose predictions aren’t generally laughable – tend to be a bit more specific, and say things that are actually testable. If they didn’t go any further than “If stuff falls down, then we’re definitely right about this gravity thing” then they probably wouldn’t have got so far with inventing things like enormous particle accelerators.

There’s a poll attached to this article asking whether we should be worried about the world ending this weekend, when the first bits of the LHC are switched on. After several thousand votes, “No” is currently winning by 55% to 45%.

Well, now I’m depressed.


Question time:

– Do you think Nostradamus had any predictive powers worth paying attention to? Why, or why not?

– Without using the phrase “for fuck’s sake”, why is a black hole unlikely to fly off into space and land on the planet Saturn, turning Saturn into a black hole?

– Why on earth did I make the title of this post into a Harry Potter pun? I mean, what’s the boy wizard got to do with any of this?


Update 10/09/08: Wow, this has become a hugely well-viewed post over the last few weeks, at least by this blog’s usual standards. There’s some more stuff I’ve written in my most recent entry here, if you’re interested in learning some more about the Large Hadron Collider itself, and the blog is updated daily with news and thoughts about stuff, sometimes a bit less vague than that, so feel free to stick around or check back later, or leave comments on anything of interest.

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