Today is LHC (Large Hadron Collider) Day!

Yes, today is that much-anticipated day when the $9 billion machine switches on at the facilities of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), located in the neighborhood of Geneva and the Swiss-French border: much-anticipated because of the insight the LHC is supposed to provide into the universe’s original “Big Bang,” but also because of the possibility that some scientists have pointed out that its atom-smashing risks creating a black hole that could suck in the Earth and turn it inside-out.

Except that today is really not LHC Day at all, as Lewis Page writing at The Register (motto: “Biting the hand that feeds IT”) steps in to point out, even making that message his piece’s title.

Today is merely the day that the monstrous thing is to be switched on, initiating what Page describes as “the inaugural, gentle bowling of some initial protons around the entire 27-km subterranean ultrachilled superconductor magnotrack.” Whether this initial proton stream heads clockwise or counter-clockwise (the article does not say: are the CERN chiefs keeping that a secret for security reasons?), it won’t even be matched by a matching stream of protons heading the other direction – but not yet on a collision-course – until “coming months.” And then the real purpose of it all will not finally be brought to bear, as the two opposite courses are allowed to cross and thus the high-speed protons are encouraged to collide, until “by the end of the year.”

So: Were you holding your breath, wondering whether we would all end today’s business day still with a common planet to call our own? You can exhale, since it seems we have a bit more time to contemplate the meaning of it all – not the least whether we can trust the scientists here to know what they are doing – before the sub-atomic really hits the fan sometime around Yuletide. In doing that we can still profit from the material published for today’s occasion, as anti-climactic as it may be. Such as the article by Alexander S. Kekulé in today’s Der Tagesspiegel: Let’s pray that Hawking is right.

Our Cambridge Ace-in-the-Hole

The “Hawking” there in the title is of course Stephen Hawking, the renowned British theoretical physicist. That should be a reassuring reference, since Hawking is an expert in black holes (and those, of course, are what supposedly threaten us from the workings of the LHC). No, more than that: he was a lead researcher in the effort during the late 1960s to prove that black holes actually exist in the universe, i.e. they are not simply some theoretical construction. This involvement also extended to expertise in “mini black holes” (also called “primordial”), i.e. the opposite of the kinds out there lurking in space somewhere, the kind that could be called into being – possibly – by the LHC’s colliding protons. Such mini black holes are supposed to lose energy via the radiation they emit (termed “Hawking Radiation”), and his calculations from the 1970s are supposed to show that the smaller they are, the faster they lose this energy and so essentially evaporate. This is supposed to be the key to why any such mini black holes created by the LHC’s induced collisions won’t stick around long enough to start the sort of chain-reaction that is feared.

But, as Kekulé points out, whereas the massive black holes lurking out there in the universe are by now accepted as fact, detected and confirmed by astronomical observation, all of the assertions about these mini black holes remain mere theory. Among the benefits that that $9 billion Large Hadron Collider will bring us is the opportunity finally to let this body of theory bump up against reality. And what if that encounter results in observed reality lying rather outside the results that theory had predicted for it? In Kekulé’s words: “If our physical picture of the world is not completely wide of the mark, nothing bad can really happen. And who would assert that physics’ picture of the world has ever been wide of the mark?”

At least you should still get to enjoy your Christmas holidays.

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