UPDATE: The world is still here

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ethan Hein

Science definitely wasn’t sleeping last night -in the very wee hours of the night, (2:30 a.m. Central time to be exact) physicists at the world’s largest particle physics laboratory – CERNthrew the switch on perhaps the most massive physics experiment ever attempted. (The AP confirms: we’re still here.) The eventual goal: find the Higgs-Boson particle, also called the “God Particle.”

In simple terms (and they would have to be, for me to understand them) physicists theorize that the Higgs-Boson particle is the particle that gives all other particles mass. Without mass – well, there wouldn’t be anything. So, physicists would like to have a look at it – and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, an $8 billion, 14-mile particle accelerator - was designed to help them. Basically, they’re going to crash a bunch of tiny particles together and see what comes out, in an effort to create the conditions that existed just after the Big Bang.

(This is all happening in Switzerland, where CERN is located – but as the Houston Chronicle reminds us today, this cutting-edge science could have been coming from Waxahatchie. The US spent $2 billion building the Superconducting Super Collider project – it’s super! – there, which would have created a particle accelerator three times as large as the LHC – before Congress pulled the funding in 1993.)

What brought so much attention to CERN over the last few months – so much so that CERN physicists went through improv comedy training to improve their skills at relating to people – were allegations that flipping the switch would literally mean the end of the world – in the form of a giant black hole that would swallow the Earth. Specifically:

The Hole
A tiny black hole will not
swallow the Earth.
Creative Commons License photo credit: jepoirrier

“…the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a ‘strangelet’ that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called ‘strange matter.’” (You can read an explanation of why that won’t actually happen here.)

So grave were fears, that Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho filed a lawsuit in a Hawaiian federal court (despite obvious issues of jurisdiction). (The above quote is from the New York Times’ coverage of their suit.) This kicked off a daily chronicle of the suit, as well as the Large Hadron Collider CERN was in the process of building and testing – and breathless speculation on whether this time, those crazy scientists really are going to kick the bucket for all known life.

Because of all this, an extremely technical branch of physics became – amazingly – a cultural phenomenon. A rap video filmed inside the Large Hadron Collider, explaining what would be tested and how, has almost 2 milion views on YouTube (the fact that it’s hysterical – but also an extremely easy-to-understand explanation – certainly helps.) Keep in mind – this is a video about physics. (Google has also marked the occasion with an LHC graphic on it’s search page today.)

The controversy could perhaps be reduced to the simple fact that people fear the unknown. We are profoundly afraid of what we can’t explain – and don’t even get started on what we can’t predict. At the very edges of science (and sometimes, smack in the middle of everyday investigations), you’re never quite sure what is going to happen. Scientists are fully aware of those risks. As the New York Times reported:

“…the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.”

Which is why the LHC Safety Assessment Group - a group of independent scientists – went back over their calculations, concluding that the experiments CERN was proposing pose “no conceivable threat.” CERN also opened the whole process to the science community and the public for examination – and continue to reassure people that:

“…if particle collisions at the LHC had the power to destroy the Earth, we would never have been given the chance to worry about the LHC, because regular interactions with more energetic cosmic rays would already have destroyed the Earth.”

This driving curiosity about the world we live in is what has taken us from cave dwellers to space walkers in less than 500,000 years – and how we’ve gone from paper maps to Google Earth in less than 15. This fear of the unknown is universal – but it is not a reason to stop trying, to stop reaching into the unknown and pulling out magic, taking it apart, figuring it out and then putting it back together again. I hope that the world will continue watching what’s happening at CERN (and in science labs all over the world) with anticipation – not of the Apocalypse, but of the wonders we we still have left to discover.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (9.8.08)

Bacteria loves milk.
Creative Commons License photo credit: IRRI Images

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

A NASA administrator insists he backs the upcoming retirement of the space shuttle (leaving the U.S. unable to send astronauts to the International Space Station)  - despite a leaked e-mail to the contrary. Oh – and, the BBC reports that Chinese astronauts (called yuhangyuan) will perform their first-ever spacewalk.

Got bacteria? New research indicates that you shouldn’t be washing your antibiotics down with milk.

Bad news for mathletes: using your brain might be making you fat.

NPR asks: Can physicists be funny? (The answer is YES.) Scientists at CERN are going through improv comedy training to help reassure the public that they’re not about to create a giant black hole that will swallow the Earth.

Arctic permafrost holds twice as much carbon as the atmosphere – making it a potential environmental threat. Good thing it’s not melting at a disturbingly fast pace.

Does the President need to be tech-savvy?

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.30.08)

heaven below
So, how deep do you think
this thing goes?
Creative Commons License photo credit: alonis

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Despite being repeatedly accused of plotting to destroy the universe, the physicists at CERN have retained their sense of humor – and they’ve used it to create a rap video explaining just what they’re up to over there. And – probably not surprisingly – it’s the best, simplest explanation I’ve seen yet.

In an effort to discover new species – and set a world record – Russian explorers will attempt to get to the bottom of Lake Baikal – the world’s largest and deepest lake.

New research is challenging whether scientists really discovered preserved soft tissue from a T. rex – or whether it is just bacterial slime.

68- to 145-million year old plant fossils in India are being crushed up for road construction. (via)

A lab in Beijing will be made available to test “suspect” female athletes’ gender - a tradition that goes back 50 years.

Titan – one of Saturn’s moons – has confirmed, natural electrical activity, one of the factors that scientists believe increases the possibility of the formation of life.