Science

LHC: The End of the World as We Know It?

As you may know, tomorrow (Wednesday, September 10 2008) is the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. You see, that’s when scientists at the CERN research center in Switzerland will be hitting a giant red button (I made that detail up) on the side of an enormous machine called the Large Hadron Collider. That machine will recreate the environment that existed in our Universe mere moments after the Big Bang.

There are people in the world who are desperately attempting to stop this experiment from proceeding. They’re using lawsuits, web hacks, death threats and more because they believe that this experiment will result in a black hole forming that will swallow the planet. Scientists around the world have repeatedly pointed out that the chances of this happen are vanishingly small. The only way that this is the end of the world as we know it is because after the LHC starts doing its thing, we’re going to know so much more about the world — well, about the entire Universe.

Stephen Hawking has just weighed in on the LHC and agreed that there’s nothing to be afraid of:

“The LHC is absolutely safe. If the collisions in the LHC produced a micro black hole – and this is unlikely – it would just evaporate away again, producing a correctoristic pattern of particles,” he said.

My first thought was, “Phew! A black hole would only produce a correctoristic pattern of particles!”

My second thought was, “Correctoristic is not a word.”

I looked it up in the dictionary — correctitude, corrective, correlate. Then I Googled, and the only results referred to Hawkings’ statement! Well, and one passing reference in another word’s definition in a Random House dictionary. That’s when I realized that CERN is out to destroy the Universe and Stephen Hawking is a part of the conspiracy. They paid him to go to the media and reassure the populace, encouraging him to just make stuff up if anyone should question his opinion. You heard it here first!

Okay, not really. If you want to learn more about how cool LHC is, check out Brian Cox’s fabulous BBC show, The Big Bang Machine or his talk at TED.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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65 Comments

  1. I wonder how this whole thing even got started. I heard about it and went around repeating it /as a joke/ and lead-in to what the thing is actually doing.

    So what’s worse, the general population never talking about science, or having people talk about it as if it’s going to destroy us all? Discuss.

  2. Because there is no place more full of incautious mavericks and devil may care adventurers than Switzerland. Seriously a nation of people that all have mandatory bomb shelters and no enemies are not going to destroy the universe.
    In related news the headline from the Tribune Geneve today was roughly “LHC to be turned on tomorrow, nothing bad expected to happen”.

  3. They paid him to go to the media and reassure the populace, encouraging him to just make stuff up if anyone should question his opinion.

    I hope they also gave him a ticket to another planet where he can spend that money.

  4. I kinda hope for two things with the LHC going online:

    1. That it does create a giant Earth-ending black hole and,
    2. that there is a Heaven and/or Hell.

    That way, we’ll all be the coolest people in the afterlife. Think about it – we’ll be going around asking people, “Hey, how’d you die?” and they’ll say boring stuff like, “Oh, I died when a cat fell out of a high-rise window onto my head” or “I got bit by a radioactive spider” (not everyone gets to be a superhero).

    Then they’ll ask, “Well, how’d you die?” and we get to say, “Me? I was sucked past the event horizon of a man-made black hole that had its beginning in Switzerland and stretched me into kilometers long spaghetti-like strands of information, never to be recovered! Ha! You’re a pussy!”

    I think it’d be really really great to use the phrase, “You’re a pussy” in Heaven. Sorta like the initial episode of South Park when Kyle says to Cartman, “Dude, you can’t say ‘fuck’ in front of Jesus!”

  5. @Zambiglione: The Swiss will stand at an intersection waiting for a walk sign to appear on a totally deserted road, behavoir incomprehensible to the most timid American.

    This whole flap is just another example of how horrifically bad humans are at risk assessment. It is many, many times more likely that humanity will be wiped out by nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia tomorrow…and that’s not going to happen either.

  6. Rebecca, ‘correctoristic’ can be a word. Why should Shakespeare have the monopoly on making shit up that gets incorporated into the language??

    Oh, and much of the doomsday hype is the result of one Walter Wagner. He tried to sue Brookhaven before they went online and was acting all crazy over the Tevatron at Fermilab pre-activation as well. A nut that the wrong people took seriously.

  7. Hmm. Well, as long as the thing getting switched on doesn’t derail my plans for an antimatter toilet, I’m OK with it.

    I mean, COME ON! The toilet will ANNIHILATE poop on contact. You’ll see. You’ll ALL see…

  8. Actually, the LHC won’t be running at full power right away, so the first energy range it will explore will be one studied in the mid-1980s.

    Thus, it will give the current batch of experiments the chance to turn back the clock a little bit, and see if they got things right a generation ago. From my awed perspective, as I consider the complexity of the machine and especially the detectors, I can’t imagine a more useful thing to do to reassure ourselves that things more or less make sense.

    And so you all can put those death threats on ice, at least for a few months. The LHC as we will know it will not be fully operational on Wednesday after all. That said, a short recap of HEP circa 1987 (“Rick Astley” physics? “Bon Jovi” physics?) should still be pretty exciting — and certainly benign by all accounts.

    Never gonna blow you up, never gonna suck you down. . . .

  9. A friend of mine is working at CERN and sent pictures. One of them is a giant styrofoam on/off switch. But the best is the giant red styrofoam button with sign saying, “black hole/strangelet crash button: in case of immanent world destruction, break glass and push abort button.”

  10. I’m not convinced that these people actually, honestly believe that the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world.

    So, what’s the problem? It represents experimental physical science? It’s a more visible target than COBE, or WMAP, or some argon atoms trapped inside bubbles in an igneous rock? It represents, physically and visibly, the study of physical cosmology, particle physics – fundamental science, the fundamental description of nature, you know?

    It represents the scientific truth of things like the Big Bang, it represents the fact that the universe is 13.73 billion years old, things like that? It represents the fact that the book of Genesis is not literally real , and it represents the people who will say that with a straight face?

    Is that why these people carry on? Is that what these people dislike?

    Anyway… I’m really excited. Still, we should remember that it takes time to start up, and we will not see really cool results overnight.

    PS:
    Science is a collaborative enterprise, spanning the generations. When it permits us to see the far side of some new horizon, we remember those who prepared the way, seeing for them also. – Carl Sagan

    This post in memoriam of José Pereira Lages.

  11. Well of course the whole micro black hole doomsday scenario a la Greg Benford’s “Artifact” won’t happen. But how cool would it be if it did? Earth collapses in on itself Switzerland-first and, just as they tip over the edge of the maelstrom, John Preskill turns to Kip Thorne and says “I guess I owe you a fiver.”

  12. I think there’s an ethical dilemma we’re all over looking.

    How “vanishingly small” do the odds have to be to justify ending all life on the planet? At what point is hitting the ON button for the Blackhole-A-tron the same as hitting the ON button for the Holocaust-in-ator.

  13. @ TheCzech – That’s true, there would be 5 billion others with the same story – but we’d probably be a nice little group out of all the people who have died throughout all history. Except Sylvia Browne. I’d still shun her…presuming we’re in the same place.

    @ marilove – I hope you never call anyone a dick then. Or asshole. I have one of those and I’d not appreciate it if you hijack that term for evil purposes.

    You know, I do go out of my way to be somewhat benign in my insults, but I’m not going to temper it so much that reading my comments is like watching Goodfellas on TBS.

    P.S. I’m HTML-tarded and have no idea how to link the names here to their relevant comments. All apologies.

  14. @enochthered: I don’t know, I think a lot of people really do distrust science enough to think that the devils in white coats are capable of killing us all. It is also, as you say, both very accessible and very easy to misunderstand, especially when an ideology demands it. Argon bubbles don’t turn too many heads, because formulating any understanding of what they mean – even a completely wrong one – would require learning some stuff. But the LHC is mentioned in the same breath as phrases like “mini black holes”, and you don’t have to do much thinking or studying to know that black holes are scary.

  15. “Characteristic pattern of particles,” of course.

    It’s an interesting error, linguistically. (It’s the kind of thing LanguageLog could generate multiple posts on.) Do we know whether Hawking issued the statement in writing, or using his speech synthesizer?

    Having messed around with speech synthesizers a bit, I’ve found that the synth frequently gets certain words completely wrong. (E.g., pronouncing the “ch” in “characteristic” like the “ch” in “church.”) But you can often deliberately misspell words to phonetically compensate for the speech synthesizers quirks, so that words are pronounced correctly. So maybe the quote is pulled from the input to the speech synthesizer.

  16. @drockwood:

    I don’t think that it has been overlooked. There are several different reports that have calculated the probabilities and discussed the specific question “How small is insignificant enough?” I know that people have used the “better chance of being killed by a former U.S. president falling out on an airplane on your head while being struck by lighting and winning the Powerball lottery simultaneously” analogy to try to give some idea of the insignificance of the possibility that the LHC is actually dangerous, but to be absolutely honest, that whole death-by-president is astronomically more likely to happen.

    On a personal level, I decided during the death-by-asteroid discussions last year that I would no longer worry about things that had a less than 1 in 40,000 chance of happening. End of the world tomorrow is not on my list.

  17. @BigHeathenMike: Well, we would be in the minority. There have been about 60 billion people born since the birth of Christ and there are about 6 billion now. (I said 5 earlier, but I was low balling…) We would be a 10% minority. Those other 90% would revere us for our coolness!

  18. @marilove: Indeed, now that we have taken over all media outlets and caused a wave of unwed pregnancy in California (As Rick Santorum explained, gay marriage caused unwed pregnancy, through mechanisms understood only by Rick Santorum) we will now destroy the world. And all ahead of schedule. I think I will go get a pedicure now.

  19. Rebecca said: “The only way that this is the end of the world as we know it is because after the LHC starts doing its thing, we’re going to know so much more about the world — well, about the entire Universe.”

    True, but I want to lower expectations. Not only is Blake right about spending some time confirming our current model and checking the gizmo for wobbly widgets, but its going to take a long time to realize what we are seeing. Nature and Science both had articles about the immense amount of information that the LHC is going to produce.

    Its going to take a lot of physicists, mathematicians, and computers a long time to unravel all of that data and figure out the ultimate question to the ultimate answer of life the universe and everything.

    The world won’t end tomorrow, but we also won’t discover the Higgs boson tomorrow. Or next week. Or maybe this decade.

  20. @ “On a personal level, I decided during the death-by-asteroid discussions last year that I would no longer worry about things that had a less than 1 in 40,000 chance of happening. End of the world tomorrow is not on my list.”

    I’m not worried about it either, I’m quite excited about the LHC in fact. But the difference between this and possibility of being killed by asteroids or or parachuting / lightning wielding presidents is that in this case a small group is making the decision for the entire planet.

  21. I think he meant “characteristic,” and either the reporter transcribing his words misinterpreted his voice box’s pronunciation of the word, or that is how he has to spell the word in order for his voice box to pronounce it correctly and the reporter went from that.

  22. Yes Durnett, I think that’s it exactly. I don’t think it has anything to do with the Jesus freaks. After all, when has science ever influenced the opinion of a religious fundementalist.

    It was a “friend” of mine from another forum I comment on who first brought the LHC to my attention. He reffered to it as “typical hubris from the dogmatic rationalist positivists” (not an exact quote).

  23. “…black hole forming that will swallow the planet. Scientists around the world have repeatedly pointed out that the chances of this happen[ing] are vanishingly small.”

    Which phrase, “vanishingly small,” describes by interesting coincidence the chances of anyone surviving the hole, should this vanishingly small chance happen to become our happenstance.

    I rather think “correctoristic” makes sense. Of or relating to a correction; as in when some matter and anti-matter are spontaneously generated by quantum flux and must go away again to satisfy conservation of mass, or something.

  24. @BigHeathenMike: I don’t infact call people dicks. :) EVERYONE has an asshole, however. It just makes me cringe when female organs and hell, just BEING female is used as an insult, as they often are. IE, you’re a pussy, or you must be gay if you act or do this, or you’re actin’ like a woman if you do tihs, or that. Know what I mean?

    But this is way, way off topic, so let me get back on topic:

    I agree with enochthered — I don’t think it is really about the world ending, myself, that is getting everyone up and arms.

  25. @marilove: I’ve long been curious why a “pussy,” an organ with amazing musculature that can distend to such a degree without losing its elasticity and strength, is a euphemism for weakness. Meanwhile, when someone is brave or brazen, we say they have “balls.” A testicle is one of the most delicate and tender structures to ever be suspended in a totally inadequate protective sack on the outside of the torso. How is that stronger than a vagina in any conceivable way?

  26. Comedian Tim Slagle pointed out that, while guys named “Richard” gladly shorten their name to “Dick” (and wondered how you shorten something by adding two letters), you never see any woman named “Contessa” shorten her name any further than “Connie”!

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