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Nothing to see at the LHC (now)…Please move on

Well, September 10th has come and gone and we’re still alive.

Yeah, the scientists didn’t kill us.

Last Wednesday caused the most anxiety I’ve seen since the whole y2K nonsense 8 years ago.

That was the day that the LHC, which seemed to temporarily stand for Lame Hysterical Crackpots instead of the Large Hadron Collider, was supposed to turn on and apparently create microscopic black holes that would swallow the earth or create a weird variety of matter called strangelets that would covert all matter into a sort-of stranglet goo.

Turns out, they were wrong on multiple levels.

Primarily they were wrong because nothing bad happened (you know…hindsight and all)

They were also embarrassingly wrong because they didn’t cross the streams!!…Helloooo…McFly…

The whole goal of “First Beam” at the LHC was to just turn the machine on, shoot protons around the track; first clockwise-then counterclockwise, and finally, drink champagne. Actual collisions aren’t even planned until the end of October. So, if there’s no collisions, then why all the black-hole drama now?

The last level of wrongness with these dire predictions was the assessment of relative risk itself. This is key area where humans naturally just fall flat on their face. The classic example I use is fear of flying. People often fret about flight safety but rarely consider that it was far riskier just driving to the stupid airport. In the case of the LHC, Scientists took seriously their responsibility of assessing the risk of these experiments. Many studies over the years have been done and not just by scientists working on the project with vested interests but independent scientists and they have all concluded that there is nothing to worry about.

The LSAG  or LHC Safety Assessment Group updated their review of the analysis made in 2003 by the LHC Safety Study Group, a group of independent scientists:

“LSAG reaffirms and extends the conclusions of the 2003 report that LHC collisions present no danger and that there are no reasons for concern. Whatever the LHC will do, Nature has already done many times over during the lifetime of the Earth and other astronomical bodies.”

This seemed the most compelling argument for safety to me. Cosmic rays are high-energy particles from deep space that bombard the earth and all other astronomical objects constantly. This is essentially what the LHC is creating and messing around with except that the Cosmic variety are orders of magnitude more energetic. If these haven’t created a black hole in our upper atmosphere or on the surface of the moon or a billion other places then we won’t make them either.

It’s been estimated that the Universe taken as a whole is performing more than 10 trillion LHC-like experiments per second. Stars and galaxies would clearly not look as they do if Cosmic rays occasionally induced Armageddon.

Some try to refute this argument saying that it’s not an apples to apples comparison. To a certain extent this is true. The LHC collides two beams of protons each traveling at relativistic speeds. This produces relatively slow moving byproducts. Cosmic rays on the other hand travel fast but they hit particles that are relatively stationary with respect to the earth. This produces byproducts that can be moving fast relative to the earth.

According to the CERN website, this is a difference that doesn’t make a difference.

The gist is that if a stable blackhole was generated that had a charge, then it would interact with the earth whether it came from cosmic rays or the LHC. Since the earth is still here, that means that cosmic rays haven’t spawned mini black holes which means the LHC won’t either.

I loved the Image Google’s homepage used last Wednesday

On the other hand, If cosmic rays created a black hole that had no charge, it would pass harmlessly through the earth due to its velocity.

The same black hole birthed by the LHC would hang around and do bad things but that birth would never come to term in the first place. To see why consider cosmic rays hitting a neutron star and creating that same uncharged black hole. This hole would not leave because of the intense gravity of the neutron star. Soon, all that would remain would be the black hole. This is not what we see when we look into space.

James Hughes, a lecturer in public policy at Trinity College and the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies put it nicely when he said:

“the risks of the Hadron Collider creating a catastrophe was on the same level at which you’re driving down the road and having your car spontaneously turn into a horse through simple quantum fluctuation.”

The following is a comment about the LHC by someone called Moltenmetal

“The trouble with the universe is that though a lot of it makes sense at a glance, the harder we look at it, the fuzzier it all gets. I doubt you’ll fix that by building bigger and more powerful “microscopes” like the LHC-… we have to be satisfied with the so-called “trickle down” benefits of this boondoggle. These scientific mega-projects are a huge waste of effort and resources.”

The first part of Moltenmetal’s comment is a bit puzzling. I suspect he’s misunderstanding Quantum uncertainty.

Moltenmetal may think this “boondoggle” is a waste but maybe he’s not aware that it wasn’t Al Gore that created the world wide web, it was CERN that did it (the European Center for Nuclear Research).

Here’s something that the LHC has already done for us even before the protons were sent flying. The LHC will generate gigabytes of data every second. Terabytes and even petabytes of this data need to be stored and sent to scientists all over the world in a timely manner. Multiple organizations around the world like the DOE’s Energy Sciences Network, Internet2, The California Institute Of Technology, and USLHCNet have developed and deployed the newest and most advanced networks in the world to handle this torrent of data. This new Grid as its called is being touted as the next generation internet that’ll be 10,000 times faster than most broadband connections.

Maybe moltenmetal doesen’t care about the mysterious dark energy or dark matter that makes up 95% of the universe of which we know next to nothing. Don’t even get me started on the Higgs boson or even potential hidden dimensions. So many benefits and new technologies and even whole industries have flowed from research done just for research sake that it is quite appalling to hear someone reflexively calling it a “huge waste of effort and resources”

Regarding this issue, Stephen Hawking recently stated that…

“Both the LHC and the Space program are vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one tenth of a per cent of world GDP. If the human race can not afford this, then it doesn’t deserve the epithet ‘human’.”

P.S.–Just in case:

I’ll end this post with a plea. Can someone please move the date for the first collisions at the LHC from the end of October to the beginning of November? I’m not worried or anything, I just don’t want to take even a tiny chance that a black hole could ruin Halloween.

10 comments to Nothing to see at the LHC (now)…Please move on

  • They were also embarrassingly wrong because they didn’t cross the streams!!…Helloooo…McFly…

    I think your mixed 80s comedy references are more likely to cause a black hole than the LHC. =)

  • Jim Shaver

    <satire>

    Besides, if the universe were really constructed in such a way that a fledgling race of intelligent and inquisitive beings performing a relatively tiny experiment could inadvertently destroy their planet and their existence, in that case I say the universe deserves what it gets.

    </satire>

  • Steve Page

    That photo of the LHC looks like a technologically-advanced cybernetic goatse.

  • Jim Shaver

    Okay, Steve, I almost bit the bait and asked, “What the heck is a goatse?” However, a quick web search and subsequent Wikipedia article saved me the, um, anti-pleasure of viewing the image described therein. So looking again at the LHC photo, I can imagine (and that is good enough) that you’re right.

    I feel so unhip right now.

  • Traveler

    “Moltenmetal may think this “boondoggle” is a waste but maybe he’s not aware that it wasn’t Al Gore that created the world wide web, it was CERN that did it (the European Center for Nuclear Research).”

    A bit of a non-sequitur there. What does the invention of HTTP in the early 90s have to do with whether the LHC is worth its cost?

    “Both the LHC and the Space program are vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out.”

    Really? The LHC is necessary to prevent our species extinction from boredom? Are there really no other interesting things we could be investigating? All of the questions of medicine, chemistry, biology, psychology and geology have been answered?

    I’m fascinated by physics. I can’t wait to see what sort of discoveries are made with the LHC. But I don’t kid myself that because I look at it and go “Wow! Cool!” that it’s necessary for the continued existence of mankind. It’s not unreasonable to look at the cost of the LHC, and think that maybe there would have been more benefit if that money had been spread around between many more projects in a variety of areas. It’s true that many things have probably been discovered as a part of designing and building the LHC. But it’s also true that other potentially useful things would have been discovered during the course of whatever other research might have been done instead of building the LHC.

    But now that it’s built let’s start those collisions! Make me say, “COOL!!”

  • Steve Page

    Jim: You made the right choice. :)

    Traveler: Ultimately, Prof Hawking is correct that we need to unravel the mysteries of the universe in order to survive, due to the finite nature of our resources on Earth. Eventually, if we are to survive as a species, we will have to leave this planet in search of greener pastures, and we won’t be doing that if we are still travelling in the galactic equivalent of a Ford Model T. I agree that there are many other areas that are still worth investigating, but will they preserve the species when our sun dies and the Earth has been drained of all its resources? As Ernest Rutherford might have said, “Philately will get you nowhere.” :D

  • Traveler, My point was to show that if CERN’s particle physics research in the late 80s could produce the world wide web, perhaps a little optimism is warranted for the potential of their current particle physics research with the LHC.

    What got to me was the characterization of the project as a boondoggle which it most certainly is not.

    Regarding Hawking. I did not interpret his use of the word stultify as boredom; more in the sense of crippling ourselves. I probably shouldn’t have included the first half of his quote anyway since my main thrust was to show how little this research really is and how integral it is to the human condition.

  • Boun

    Nice article Bob.

  • halincoh

    This topic inspires DUMBS THINGS HEARD AT MY GYM today:

    ” Hey, did those crazy people turn that thing on yet? ”

    I simply responded by saying, ” yes, on Sept 10th.”

    But there was so much more I WANTED to say. It simply wasn’t the right time or place. Sheesh.

  • halincoh

    Why? I don’t get it, just giving the date was a cop out ; he had just started a ‘conversation’ with you. You should have enthused.

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