Fire her up!

As the time draws nearer for the scientists at CERN to turn the power knob on the Large Hadron Collider from “test” to “oh my god!” every crackpot in shouting distance has been airing their views on how quickly / extravagantly the world is going to end. Now it’s my turn!

This is all very technical stuff, and due to the nature of the project technicalities are unavoidable. I will try to keep it as simple as possible without losing any of the meaning of what I am saying.

Lets start out with a quick look at what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is and what it is expected to do. The LHC is the world largest and highest energy particle accelerator to date. More than 8’000 physicists from 85 countries have contributed to the development and construction of what is surely the worlds largest science experiment. When the LHC is operating at full capacity it will accelerate “bunches” of protons around it’s 27km circumference until they reach a peak energy of 7TeV. Once the protons have reached this state they will be stored and observed. This is where the really interesting things happen, while the protons are smashing into each other.

This is where the physicists hope to observe the elusive Higgs boson particle. The Higgs boson is a hypothetical particle, predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. Physicists hope that the Higgs boson will provide a deeper understanding of how matter is made up, and more specifically, why matter has mass.

Representation of LHC on Franco-Swiss border

Ok, now that we understand the LHC a little better, let us take a look at what it will not do;

One of the most common concerns raised is that a tiny black hole (or a “shower” of them) will form, drop to the centre of the earth and devour the earth from within.

There is an unstated major premise in this argument and I will point it out in a minute, first I would like to discuss black holes in a further detail.

The LHC has not been built to create black holes. The LHC cannot create the type of black holes we see in the sky as a result of the collapse of stars that run out of fuel. This is because the energy required to do that is 10 million billion times (1016) larger than the energy available at the LHC. The black holes that are causing the alarm are objects that could only appear if the theory which suggests that our universe has more that the four dimensions we experience (the three spatial dimensions plus time, the fourth dimension) is correct. These extra dimensions could theoretically have a “size” of about 10–16cm (0.000….001 cm, with 16 zeros in between). Since the LHC can explore such distances in virtue of its energy, if this theory is correct, then we could create a black hole.There is no current indication in our understanding of the world that these specific theories are right, they are just speculative exercises. And, when these scenarios are put to test in experimental situations other than the LHC, one can already today conclude that it is rather unlikely that indeed sizes accessible to the LHC are allowed. Ths is because, if they were true, then other phenomena would have appeared, which have not been seen in a series of other measurements performed in the very recent years

The unstated major premise (our first logical fallacy for tonight) is that more than the four dimensions with which we are familiar exist. By claiming that the LHC will create black holes, alarmists such as Walter Wagner and Professor Otto Rossler expect you to assume that these extra dimensions exist and that the LHC can access them. This is blatantly ridiculous.

But if black holes are created by the LHC it would be an amazing oportunity to study them and learn about the machinations of our universe!

A second argument which I keep tripping over is that an exotic form of matter will be created, called “strangelets”, the following extract is from Walter Wagner’s website lhcdefense.org;

STRANGELETS

Strangelet is the name given to a theoretical form of matter that might exist in nature. Under some theories, a more stable form of nuclear matter might exist, when compared to our normal form of nuclear matter that is formed of up and down quarks combined into protons and neutrons [either two up and one down, or two down and one up], which in turn combine to form the nuclei of atoms.

Under these theories, an equal number of up, down and strange quarks would form a slightly more stable form [slightly less mass], more stable than the Iron nucleus, the most stable form of normal nuclear matter. This is called strange matter, or strange quark matter [sqm]. Unlike normal matter, in which increasing the number of protons and neutrons beyond the 56 present in Iron increases the coulombic repulsion and de-stabilizes the nucleus, no such coulombic repulsion would exist in strange quark matter, and the larger the nucleus, the more stable the sqm nucleus. A very small chunk of sqm is called a strangelet. This sqm could be either slightly positive, or slightly negative, or neutral, under various theories.

Strangelets are also theorized to be creatable in colliders if they collide two large atoms together, such as two lead atoms. In nature, such large atoms do not collide at LHC energies. Instead, high-energy incoming cosmic rays are believed to be single protons, which would likely plow right through a large nucleus sitting on the moon. Also, as is true for miniature black holes, if natural strangelets are neutral they would simply pass through Earth neutrino-like at high speed if created by cosmic rays. If created instead at rest relative to Earth in a collider, they would be trapped by Earth’s gravitational field, and potentially be able to interact with normal matter, acquire quarks, and grow larger.

Cosmologists have theorized that so-called “neutron stars” can form from collapsed stars in which the electrons and protons of a massive collapsed star, not quite large enough to form a black hole, combine together to from neutrons, so the entire star becomes a massive single nucleus of nothing but neutrons. Most theories about such neutron stars now show that they would more likely form into sqm, and they are now called “strange stars” instead of “neutron stars”.

Searches for sqm in nature,…fruitless.

Walter Wagner proves that expertise in one area (biology) does not necessarily mean proficiency in another. The above exert is so confused that I barely know where to begin. Well, here goes…

Firstly, neutron stars are NOT now referred to as “strange stars”. A neutron star is a real life star, they exist, have been documented and studied and are well known. For an excellent primer on neutron stars please check out NASA’s page here.

“Strange stars” on the other hand are theoretical. There is no evidence that they exist, they have never been documented or studied and CERTAINLY are not neutron stars.

Walter Wagner does not seem to know his quarks from his gluons. And even if he did, I would not give more weight to the rabid barking of a biologist and a chemist swimming in physical water way over their heads then I would give to the 8’000 specialist physicists who have been working on this project since the 1980’s. These people are highly trained and they know their science better than anybody else.

P.S – if you are reading this after the scheduled full circuit run of the LHC on 10 September, please drop us a short line in the comments section so that we know you have not been destroyed by a strangelet induced pulsar at the center of our planet. Thanks!

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3 responses to “Fire her up!

  1. Actually, Josh, the physicists at CERN have an excellent idea of what to expect. The LHC is not the first high-energy collider to be built and particle physicists have a pretty good idea of what they are doing.

  2. No I was not consumed by a pulsar created at the centre of our planet, however at that same moment that the experiments began my flux capacitor overloaded and I was thrown back to 9 September 2008! I am so far out of my comfort zone with you primitive pre-LHC people. If you are reading this and you have a spare one point twenty-one jiggerwatts (whatever those are) please help!! I don’t even know what “point twenty-one” means!

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