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 – CERN – threw 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 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.