The End Is Near…Switzerland

July 2, 2008

You may not be fully aware of it, but come this fall, the world may end. And of all places, it’s going to happen in Switzerland. And here I thought they were neutral on the whole end of the world thing.

For those who, like everyone else in the world, including scientists, skip the “Science” part of your Sunday paper (otherwise known as the Science/Health/Grammar Column/Bridge Advice section), the Large Hadron Collider is a massive scientific apparatus that does…something. About something. So we can find out something important, such as how to increase government grants to large particle accelerators. To be honest, I’ve read the purpose of this machine about a thousand times (I’m using significant digits, there) and I still have only a vague notion of exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish. Granted this may be because of my experience in physics class in high school:

Teacher: Today, we’re going to learn about the Wankel Rotary Engine.
Me, Thinking To Myself: I wonder if that blonde chick in front of me thinks I’m cute.
Teacher: So when you are ready to turn in your assignments about Planck’s Constant let me know and I’ll give you’re your assignment on formulating inertia.
Me: I also wonder if that blonde chick is wearing anything under that shirt.
Teacher: The test on kinetic energy will be next Tuesday.
Me: I think I’ll go home and call her number, then hang up, then play Nintendo for five hours.

Granted, I took physics in college, too, though this time things were different. I had a Sony PlayStation by that point.

Anyway, after reading an article about the collider, the gist of what I came out with was the following:
1) There’s a chance this collider might kill us.
2) But it probably won’t.
3) We hope.

That’s right, when they flip that switch in Switzerland, there’s a remote chance the world will end. Exactly how this is going to happen, however, has so far been left to the imagination of the reader, and the more frightening the method the less knowledgeable of physics the supposer has. But it is kind of freakish to realize that scientists are pushing the button with one hand, crossing their fingers on the other.

The most common thought is that the collider will produce a series of black holes. Anyone who has gone through a rigorous scientific program of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation knows, black holes are nothing you want to screw around with. They eat babies, drain vital nutrients, lay asunder women and children, and watch Spike TV. And, alas, the super collider is not a Warner Brothers cartoon (oh, the wonder of THAT day!), so getting rid of the black holes isn’t as easy as simply hitting the reverse button.

Of course, that’s not the only theoretical danger. The collider could also produce magnetic monopoles, vacuum bubbles, and strangelets. No, I have no idea what these are, either. I assume that magnetic monopoles hurt about as much as they sound like they will, vacuum bubbles is actually the name of a porn star, and strangelets are some new form of delicious candy.

All this is enough to startle anyone, and it’s startled at least one person into (surprise!) legal action. A collection of individuals attempted to force an injunction to prevent the activation of this device. The suit, as was expected, was recently dismissed. Notably, however, were the reasons it was dismissed; not because there wasn’t a chance that the supercollider would cause the world to end, or that it would cause irreparable harm to the atmosphere, but that the six year statute of limitations had expired. Whew! Thank goodness that our courts will bring about the end of the world in an appreciatively judicious manner.

The construction of the project itself has not been without drama, either. At one point, a focusing quadrupole (or whatever) collapsed, the engineers apparently not taking gravity into account when building it. If that doesn’t inspire confidence in the program, I can’t imagine what will.

To be fair, a lot of this is probably nothing more than a lot of bluster. On the one hand, top scientists dismiss the safety claims, stating that this is something that has been done a million times before. On the other hand, if it has, then why build a huge underground cavern of dark, swirling, mysterious physics concepts in the first place? Ostensibly, the goal is to observe the creation of the Higgs boson, apparently a vital key in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. (Again, I read its purpose, and, as always, walked away with two ideas: 1) Scientists are significantly smarter than myself, or 2) scientists are really, really adept at making shit up.) Me, I’m convinced that the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe is at the bottom of a bottle of Gewürztraminer, but as of yet my methods have not persuaded the scientific community. They prefer scotch.