We interrupt posting the final installment of "Brainiacs" week at the cocktail party to bring you this special announcement: the world is not going to end when CERN finally turns on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) later this year. Seriously. I wrote about this issue way back in September 2006, and tried really hard to resist commenting further in the wake of last week's news that a lawsuit has been filed in Hawaii's U.S. District Court (Hawaii?!?) seeking a temporary restraining order against CERN and its partners in building the LHC. You are reading this because I discovered that resistance is futile. The self-styled Prophets of Doom never rest in their single-minded mission to halt scientific progress around the globe and quash the spirit of free inquiry and discovery wherever it threatens to bloom. In this case, the plaintiffs want to postpone start-up preparations for "at least" four months in order to "reassess" the collider's safety. Because, you know, it could destroy the world by creating mini-black holes, magnetic monopoles, or converting all the matter in the universe into exotic strangelets.
(*cue exasperated eye-rolling*) Oh, give me a break already. This is nothing more than the latest round of fear-mongering that always seems to accompany the start-up of a new accelerator. In fact, one of the plaintiffs is none other than "former nuclear safety officer" Walter Wagner, who spearheaded the attempt to create panic surrounding Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) -- that lawsuit was dismissed, and rightly so. News flash to Wagner (and his ilk): RHIC has been operating since 2000. The world has not yet ended. Nor did it end when Fermilab's Tevatron turned on -- not a single artificial supernova appeared, despite all the preliminary hand-wringing by fear-mongers -- or when the Stanford Linear Accelerator came online.
Perhaps some of you think I am a bit too hasty in pooh-poohing the risks associated with a big powerful machine like the LHC. Let me assure you that this is not the case: I believe very strongly that science has a responsibility to evaluate the safety of its experiments, particularly for something as massive as the LHC. LHC scientists have done so. Wagner's concerns are nothing new to anyone who has followed the development of the accelerator's design and construction over the last decade or more. The inherent risks have been fully and fairly considered by the best scientific minds in the world, who take their responsibility for ensuring safety of operation very, very seriously. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, an insult to the world high-energy physics community.
There have been two safety assessments already, and a third update has just been completed. ("The possibility that a black hole eats up the Earth is too serious a threat to leave it as a matter of argument among crackpots," one CERN theorist told The New York Times.) We're talking about the most expert testimony any court could hope to have on record.
Why bring the courts into it at all? Because Wagner refuses to accept the scientific consensus on the issue, that's why. Apparently, he thinks he knows better than all those world-class physicists who have participated in three (to date) safety assessment reviews. Hey, he studied physics and "worked on cosmic ray research" at the University of California, Berkeley, according to Dennis Overbye's article in The New York Times, although there's no mention of Wagner earning an actual degree, apart from a doctorate in law from the the University of Northern California in Sacramento. And then he spent several years working as a radiation safety officer for the Veterans Administration. In short, he knows just enough to foster panic, and not enough to make a scientifically rigorous assessment of what the true risks are. A little learning is a dangerous thing, indeed. Pardon me for finding the "testimony" of world-class experts in particle theory more convincing than that of a retired radiation safety officer, however well-meaning.
Wagner's mysterious co-plaintiff, Luis Sancho, might not even have that much background: he is described as an "author and researcher in time theory," living somewhere in Spain, "probably in Barcelona." Probably? If Wagner can't even locate his own co-plaintiff -- never mind give us any information about Sancho's scientific credentials -- why should we believe his statements about the LHC? Answer: we shouldn't. All the cool bloggers agree. But don't take our word for it, either. CERN has specifically addressed this issue on their Website, where you can find lay-friendly summations of the salient issues, as well as links to other relevant official documentation. There's no big conspiracy to hide the "truth," and this is not, as Wagner claims, mere "propaganda." If anything, it's Wagner who's peddling the propaganda. In fact, part of the LHC's current PR problem is that physicists are so darned honest in their assessments, they are reluctant to go on record as definitively ruling out even the most unlikely of scenarios. And that gives folks like Wagner the ammunition they need to foster unfounded panic.
Perhaps my favorite comment on the whole LHC Doomsday scenario appeared in a thread at Shakesville, where a poster identified as Astaea wrote, "Wasn't this an Angel episode? We aren't in danger till one of the scientists gets dumped by his girlfriend." Astaea is referring to a Season 2 episode of Angel entitled "Happy Anniversary," in which a brilliant physics grad student's experiment on freezing time nearly ends the world. It actually has very little to do with fears surrounding the LHC (although Sancho is apparently working on theoretical aspects of time), but I had a lot of fun analyzing the episode in a chapter of (shameless plug alert!) my book, The Physics of the Buffyverse.
In the episode, Gene (the physics student, dubbed "Time Boy" by a jealous colleague) assures a curious co-worker that his experiment isn't really about freezing time, "although that's how it would look to an outside observer." Rather, he's trying to carve out a teensy-tiny piece of space-time and remove it from reality. Anything contained within that moment would exist in its own bubble universe, forever unchanged. Time would have no meaning.
He just can't get his experimental apparatus to work correctly; his math isn't quite right, apparently. I'm sure there's lots of physicists out there who could relate to Gene's dilemma. He has something they lack: a technologically advanced, fanatical demon sect intent on ridding Earth of the pesky human race once and for all. They correct his math, and when he returns to the lab and enters the new parameters, voila! A tiny drop of mercury is suspended in a timeless bubble, right there in the lab, until he turns off the machine.
Like any respectable scientist, Gene has taken safety into consideration: his experiment is equipped with various safeguards to contain the experiment, lest that tiny bubble universe escape its confines, spread, and eventually engulf the entire world. But then he overhears his girlfriend confessing her intent to break up with him after their anniversary dinner (and requisite "sympathy bone," as the girlfriend's confidante succinctly puts it).
Frankly, Gene kinda loses perspective for a bit at this depressing news. He decides to set up the experiment in his bedroom and triggers the device at the (ahem) climactic moment. Things might still have been okay, if it weren't for those meddling demons. As Gene and his (soon to be ex-) girlfriend are suspended in their private bubble, the demons remove the safeguards, and the bubble starts to spread outward, freezing everything it engulfs in its path -- until Angel managed to shut down the system in the nick of time. The bubble collapses back in on itself, and time resumes for everyone.
There's a lot to criticize in the science of this episode if one is inclined to nitpick. In some ways, it's typical "Hollywood science": a smattering of nifty-sounding physics concepts and buzzwords that, when parsed, don't seem to make much sense. In this case, you've got the notion of carving time into infinitesimal pieces --something (if memory serves) mentioned in Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos. You've got elements of tabletop plasma wakefield accelerators and laser trapping in Gene's fictional experimental apparatus. And you've got elements of relativity and black hole physics. At one point, Gene compares the effect of his temporal experiment to "a tiny event horizon."
This doesn't mean that his premise is feasible by any "real world" standard in physics. He says that if a single drop of mercury is dropped into the field created by his tabletop accelerator, and if the particles that make up the laser beams are moving at just the right velocity (the speed of light, one assumes), the mercury would be accelerated completely out of our space-time. Accelerating something to exactly the speed of light would, indeed, cause time to contract to nothing from the perspective of that object, per Special Relativity. The catch is that no object with mass can ever reach the speed of light, even tiny subatomic particles. The LHC and other accelerators can speed up particles to within 99.999% of the speed of light, but no matter how much additional power they feed into the machine, because there is a corresponding increase in mass, the particles never quite reach light speed. It would require an infinite amount of energy.
Extreme gravity -- such as that of a black hole -- might do the trick, at least, as Gene points out, from the perspective of an outside observer. Your basic black hole physics states that as an object gets closer and closer to the event horizon, someone watching its approach would see it moving more slowly the closer it gets, until it stops entirely just before crossing the event horizon, on the verge of falling in for all eternity. (From the perspective of the object itself, of course, it would continue falling into the black hole and be "spaghettified" -- Kip Thorne's colorful phrasing -- by extreme gravity along the way.) Does creating a black hole in a lab the size of Gene's seem a bit far-fetched? Sure, especially when the episode first aired. But science presses forward, and the March 2008 issue of the IEEE Spectrum magazine has a fascinating article on how scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have created an "artificial black hole" using optical fiber -- or at least something with the telltale properties of an event horizon. Maybe Gene was just really cutting edge.
The theoretical possibility of the LHC creating "mini-black-holes" is one of the Doomsday scenarios causing the current brouhaha, so this notion isn't 100% far-fetched. But here, again, there is a catch: Hawking radiation, which causes a black hole to gradually evaporate over time, proportional to its size. The bigger the black hole, the longer it takes to evaporate, and the smaller the black hole, the less time it takes to evaporate. If the LHC does, indeed, create mini-black holes -- and this is still a matter of hot debate among theorists -- they would be roughly the size of a subatomic particle and would evaporate in fractions of a second -- long before they could pose any risk to the world's continued existence. The same would hold true for Gene's temporal experiment.
I personally found it impressive that Angel's writers even attempted to build an episode around something so complicated and esoteric. They get points in my book for their cutting-edge science flair, even if everything is stitched together rather awkwardly. (A Season 4 Angel episode entitled "Supersymmetry" does a better job in this regard, cleverly drawing on the notion of string compactification in string theory as a possible mechanism for the creation of portals to other worlds in the Buffyverse -- and using all the associated jargon correctly in the process.) It's an entertaining premise, even if it's wildly unlikely. The Buffyverse is a fictional world, after all, and is therefore not necessarily constrained by the laws of physics as we understand them. It only has to be consistent with its own laws.
The same cannot be said for Wagner's contentions about the LHC. Honestly, based on what I've heard from every single physicist I've spoken with about the issues over the years, the "risks" he cites are almost as wildly unlikely as the premise of "Happy Anniversary"'s temporal physics experiment gone haywire. And Wagner doesn't have the excuse of a fictional universe to fall back on. A whole string of unlikely events -- each with an infinitesimally small probability on its own -- would have to all come together perfectly, at just the right time, and in just the right order, to bring about the end of the world as we know it. Wagner might as well file a lawsuit saying the LHC should be postponed until we've established that a fanatical demon sect from a parallel universe won't over-ride the accelerator's safeguards to trigger his Doomsday scenario.