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The End of Days, or the Large Hadron Collider

by Paul Plumeri


The Large Hadron Collider.
“DUDE!! A BLACK HOLE IS GOING TO SWALLOW THE EARTH!!!” This is the tirade my lunatic friend Dave woke me up with one day, nearly blasting me out of bed. This is the same friend that told me Russian geologists had found a gateway to hell five miles under the Siberian peninsula, and that there was an inter-dimensional vortex in a forest near Paramus, NJ. I was about to return to my emollient slumber, when Dave started waving around a ridiculous picture of a seemingly tiny man dwarfed by a huge technicolor tunnel. At first I thought he was the foreman for the Death Star construction team.

As I squinted my eyes to try to elicit some kind of clear understanding of what I was seeing, my eccentric compadre started yelling, “ATOM SMASHER, ATOM SMASHER, ATOM SMASHER!” At this point I decided to wake up, especially after the 105 decibel shrieks filling my apartment.

So I did what any good journalist does: I typed “Atom Smasher” into Google. One of the first links I saw was a page linked to the Princeton University Plasma Physics lab. There I found the same picture my friend was waving around, and I was instantly captivated.

We are extremely lucky (or unlucky depending on which paradigm you choose) to live in an era in which science fiction becomes science fact. With further reading I learned that the name of this colossal wonder was the Large Hadron Collider, and that many physicists believed that its completion and implementation would be one of the most illuminating moments of physics, if not all of human invention.

One of the main functions of the LHC is to recreate the conditions seen directly following the Big Bang, considered the most probable way in which the universe was created. The observation of this synthesis will help tackle some of physics’ most exigent questions: Is the basis of modern physics correct? How do particles have mass, and why? Where did all the anti-matter go, and are there extra dimensions of space that we have not yet detected? What is the true nature of dark matter and dark energy? Until the LHC becomes fully operational, the scientific community will wait on bended knee, anxious and hopeful that it will find these answers.

However, not everyone is excited about the LHC. An organization called Citizens Against the Large Hadron Collider, spearheaded by Dr. Walter Wagner, is totally committed to the ensuring that the LHC never tests a single collision. One of Wagner’s most popular and terrifying suppositions is that an LHC experiment could inadvertently trigger the creation of a black hole which would in turn rapidly grow in intensity and swallow the Earth in the blink of an eye.

Wagner believes so strongly the Earth is in danger, he filed a lawsuit on March 21 of 2008 in the U.S District Court in Honolulu against the U.S. Department of Energy, the Fermilab particle-accelerator near Chicago, and the National Science Foundation. Part of the lawsuit reads, "The compression two atoms colliding together at nearly light speed will cause an irreversible implosion, forming a miniature version of a giant black hole." While the European Organization for Nuclear Research physicists acknowledge the possibility that black holes will be created, they are certain that they will be so small and weak that they will disappear almost as quickly as they are created, as stated in a risk assessment press release. Despite this, media coverage generated by the case has led some people to become fearful of the prospect of an apocalypse, which has also sparked conspiracy theories into what other ways the LHC could destroy the world.

A non-profit organization called the Risk Evaluation Forum based in Albany, NY, insists “that as particle accelerators become more powerful, there is a significantly higher probability that dangerous and unpredictable events may occur.” Other concerns in the scientific community range from the generation of cosmic rays that will poison large amounts of the populace with radiation, to the production of “strange matter” that will assimilate and destroy all matter it touches, almost like a cosmic virus.

Former NASA physicist Christopher Klim believes one of the most valid apprehensions is that “smashing all those atoms might trigger an uncontrollable nuclear reaction.” Dr. Igor Klebanov, a Professor of Physics at Princeton University, offers a much more reassuring view. He says, “technical studies show that, in the case of LHC, any hysteria is totally unfounded. Safety of the human race is not at stake here by any stretch of the imagination.” As of now, all injunctions against the LHC have been dismissed and it remains unimpeded by any legislative body.

The LHC is the brainchild of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, because of its original French title (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire). CERN has been designing proton accelerators for decades, and in the 1980s the conceptual framework for LHC was laid out from the demise of its little brother, the Large Electron-Positron Collider. After many years of work on the architectural requirements and physical aspects of such a device, the decision was made in December of 1994 build the LHC. Fourteen years and $6 billion later, the LHC is finally ready for use.

So what exactly is the Large Hadron Collider? In general terms, it is the world’s largest and highest-energy proton accelerator, using a 17-mile circular tunnel buried an average of 326 feet under the border of France and Switzerland to conduct a variety of revolutionary experiments and measure their results. The complex itself is a landmark of architecture, supporting the “largest experiment ever to be constructed. Its scope and complexity are mind-boggling,” according to Dr. Klebanov.

The tunnel is so large because the length ultimately equates to higher energy accelerations and collisions of hadrons. According to CERN, the tunnel is divided into eight sectors, featuring superconducting magnets that support a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way. Since launched protons will be travelling 99.999999% the speed of light, they can make 11,245 laps around the complex in a second. The LHC is buried so deep because the Earth provides the greatest radioactive shielding. It would also be costly to tear up the Franco-Swiss countryside and implant an ugly grey tunnel over its farms.

Protons and lead ions are both members of the hadron family, which is a classification of subatomic particles. Hadrons are specifically used in LHC tests because they are most reactive to electromagnetic force and will not decay under the parameters involved in the acceleration process, according to CERN. Since the LHC is a circular accelerator, heavy particles like protons lose a lot less energy per cycle as compared to an electron (which is approximately 2000 times less massive than a proton). It’s as if you hooked a rocket engine to a bus and a bicycle. The momentum generated by the mass of the bus would make it much harder to slow down, whereas the bicycle could be affected by the smallest variable.

A collider is a machine that launches counter-circulating beams and monitors their collision. It maintains a huge advantage over a standard accelerator where beams follow a linear trajectory and collide with a stationary target. When two beams collide, the energy created is equal to the sum of the energies of the two beams. When a beam of the same energy is emitted toward a static target, the reaction produced is far less. According to CERN, the interaction produced by colliding two proton beams will generate temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the sun’s core, contained in a space exponentially smaller. The hadron collisions are the most important part of the LHC, because they will generate the data needed to fundamentally change our understanding of the universe as we know it, and most importantly how it began, according to its supporters.

Stephen Hawking’s Big Bang Theory can be hard to picture when looking solely at the math behind it. Instead, pretend you are in a capsule and tasked with the responsibility of finding the Big Bang anomaly. You are then launched through a wormhole that takes you to the dawn of time. At the very beginning, there was nothing ; a vast expanse of void into timeless micro-infinity. Matter would find no anchor in the absence of existential eternity. The universe is fundamentally unaware of itself, in a slumber unfathomable by man. Does it dream of its own existence? As we further survey the vacuous landscape in hopes of discovering any sign of life, we find our efforts to be fruitless as we are enveloped in the shroud of pre-creation. Then it reveals itself, the tiniest glimmer of light that is only visible because of the complete absence of color surrounding it. Is this tiny speck the prologue to the book of everything? For now it is but an embryo with the diameter of a billionth, of a billionth, of a billionth, of a billionth, of a billionth of a meter across; exponentially smaller than that of a human. This is the Big Bang singularity, the supposed antecedent to the milieu of our existence. It is a point of zero volume, but very high mass, which makes the density infinite, containing all of the matter and energy that would become the universe.

From a relative peace, like most human births, violence is a marked characteristic that our cosmos shared. Reality is now an oceanic flow of particles in ever changing patterns; panta rei, undulating within the ultimate core of creation. Everything is coming in waves and from all sides; nuclear, molecular and gravitational layers. Contrary to popular belief, the Universe didn’t explode; it expanded like an infinitesimally small balloon that would now inflate out to the seemingly endless macrocosm in which we live.

There are two main theories that mathematically explain the Big Bang and how we think the universe works, according to the book Elementary-Particle Physics by the Board on Physics and Astronomy. There is Einstein’s theory of relativity, which helps to govern and interpret the actions of large objects, and quantum mechanics, which is engineered for understanding the smallest particles in existence. Both can deal with anything in between, like average everyday interactions, but there is no connection between the two. Quantum mechanics can’t figure out what’s happening on a large scale, and general relativity is clueless on a small scale. The holy grail of theoretical physics is the Theory of Everything or Unification Theory. Einstein chased this theory to his death bed, according to some of his last recovered notes. It is every physicist’s dream to be the one who was able to unify both quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, and in doing so gaining insight into the will of the Master Architect. Unfortunately there are still some major holes in our apperception of certain cosmic aberrations. So what is stopping the scientific researcher-at-large from creating a Theory of Everything?

Before that can be answered, one must first achieve a base understanding of the fundamental concepts behind particle physics. The cumulative explorations of thousands of physicists over the past centuries have culminated into a unique conception of how the world works on a subatomic level. This basically means that science has been able to magnify our physical makeup to its most substratal level and has in turn found the building blocks of all matter. We call these building blocks the twelve fundamental particles and they are governed by the four forces from which most of modern physics derives: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. The conglomeration of our understanding of these relationships is encapsulated in the Standard Model of particles and forces. While its existence is still anchored in theory, the Standard Model has been a main source of reference for a variety of experimental results and has helped to ascertain causality from phenomena that was previously considered anomalous. The Standard Model is now over three decades old and as time has passed it has been refined by almost constant experimentation by the world’s brightest minds, which has established it as one of the most well-tested theories in all of physics.

This does not mean the Standard Model is plenary. While it is able to successfully relate three out of four of the fundamental forces, it fails to explain gravity’s affect on subatomic particles. There are also certain concepts unexplained by the Standard Model, such as the existence of dark matter, anti-matter, dark energy and most importantly the Higgs boson or “God particle”. The Higgs boson is one of the primary reasons that the Large Hadron Collider was designed in the first place, according to CERN. The particle must either be proved or disproved in order for the Standard Model to remain relevant.

We know objects have mass, but why? What makes things weigh what they do and what creates this frame of reference? The Standard Model is unable to explain this sufficiently. If the existence of the Higgs boson can be proved, it might be the link needed to develop a unification theory, according to Dr. Peter Higgs, a retired Emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, and the man behind the Higgs concept. It is a particle that exists on a quantum scale, and accounts for mass, and mass is what causes gravity, which is a component of general relativity. There is something called the Higgs Field that is believed to be omnipresent in the universe. When an object moves through the Higgs field, Higgs bosons attach to it, causing the object to slow down as it moves, which is also called inertia. As it keeps moving slower and slower it becomes more difficult to change velocity. Part of inertia is your mass, and when moving through the Higgs Field, the bosons attach to you and give you mass. Each Higgs boson has a certain mass attributed to it, and that’s where mass originates. Without the Higgs boson, all energy would travel unimpeded and there would be no matter in the universe, only energy. In our mass there is energy hidden, which is an important component of the theory of relativity, according to Einstein.

When Dr. Stephen Hawking is asked whether he thinks we will find the Higgs boson he says "I think it will be much more exciting if we don't find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again. I have a bet of one hundred dollars that we won't find the Higgs."

Dr. Igor Klebanov holds a slightly antipathic view, saying the “LHC is widely expected to detect the Higgs boson. It may well discover dark matter. Finding something related to the dark energy or extra dimensions is a long shot.”
The LHC can also help investigate one of physics greatest unsolved problems: the absence of anti-matter in the physical universe. Everything is filled with matter, so consider that the ying and anti-matter the yang. Anti-matter is comprised of particles that are equivalent, yet antipodal to everyday matter particles, according to NASA. Imagine you have dug a hole and made a hill next to it with the dirt you’ve unearthed. Both the hole and hill share equivalent yet contrary attributes. For instance, imagine the relationship between the volume of the dirt in the hill and also the hole where the dirt was excavated. In the same way, a particle will have a positive charge and an antiparticle will have a negative charge, and vice-versa. If matter and anti-matter ever touch they will annihilate each other in a burst of energy, just like if we were to fill the hole again with the dirt, neither would exist in their previous form. Many scientists believe that during the big bang, the cosmos was equal parts matter and anti-matter, but for some reason, all the anti-matter disappeared. This has led to some conjecture that maybe there is a parallel universe out there that mirrors ours symmetrically, or maybe extra dimensions that we have not discovered.

This leads us to dark matter. There is a preconception that the word “dark” as an adjective is associated with some kind of evil, but in physics it just means something cannot be seen through traditional measures. Most of the time its existence is discovered by a missing component in an equation engineered to understand a cosmic event. Although dark matter has mass, it does not behave in a traditional fashion, and it is able to pass straight through our bodies.

We know dark matter exists because it exerts a gravitational pull which is responsible for the development and maintenance of galaxies and galactic clusters, according to NASA. For some reason, in the standard galactic model, even though we can observe most mass at the core, the outer rim of the galaxy spins at the same speed, which shouldn’t be physically possible. The only way that it would be is if there was more mass in the outer regions than in the center. Therein the problem lies, because scientists cannot observe any mass that is responsible for regulating the rotational speed of the galaxy: thus dark matter becomes a necessary concept to help explain this relationship.

Astrophysical surveys of the universe done by NASA have shown that visible matter only accounts for 4% of its total makeup. It is believed that the remaining 96% is divided between 23% dark matter and 73% dark energy. Physicists attribute the expansion of the universe to dark energy. It is also considered to be ubiquitous, extremely malleable, and elastic, yet not made of particles. Its most distinct and amazing characteristic is that its gravity repels instead of attracts. If it wasn’t for that feature the universe would stagnate and possibly slingshot back into its original singularity. As with dark matter, dark energy, by nature, is invisible to us. However, this does not mean physicists cannot theorize its existence in a way that is compliant with the already developed laws of physics.

Mathematical principles are the bedrock on which physics is built. The math behind a theory either proves or disproves its validity. Any new concept has to rebalance the equations of physics, typically Newtonian Law of which Einstein was a disciple, or it remains a theory. The problem is, although the math might work, there has been a lack of physical evidence to completely validate many of these concepts, hence the need for the LHC to deliver observable reactions, but how would it bear the results?

One of the most important and complex parts of the LHC is its six detectors. ATLAS is one of two general purpose particle detectors and is tasked with searching for the Higgs boson and hints that extra dimensions exist. CMS is the other general purpose detector and will also look for Higgs boson in addition to tracking clues that dark matter exists. ALICE will run experiments on something called quark-gluon plasma which is a form of matter that is thought to have existed directly after the Big Bang. LHCb will investigate where all the missing anti-matter has gone. The last two, TOTEM and LHCf, are much smaller than their siblings, and conduct more specific experiments with a variety of functions. More than 8,000 physicists from 111 nations have worked on the LHC over the last 14 years, according to CERN, and many still remain involved to this day. Almost 15 million gigabytes of data a year will be generated by the experiments conducted at the LHC, according to CERN.

Even though the LHC has barely been tested, its effect on the human psyche seemingly continues. A teenage Indian girl committed suicide after watching media reports that said the LHC could possibly lead to the apocalypse, according to the Guardian newspaper. A group of hackers even went so far as to try to breach the CERN computer network and shut down its servers. Internet message boards have been abuzz for years with debate on whether the LHC should be shut down.
Despite all opposition, on September 10, 2008, the LHC successfully fired two test beams around its tunnel, one moving clockwise and the other moving counterclockwise. Nine days later, however, a technical malfunction shut the project down due to a “faulty electrical connection between two of the accelerator’s magnets,” according to CERN. The repair of this malfunction could take the LHC offline until late summer 2009, and cost nearly $21 million. While this is a devastating development for most physicists, all of those people who are frightened and anxious about the LHC’s use are breathing a sigh of relief. As of yet, no actual collisions have been tested.

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