Could A Particle Accelerator Really Spell The End Of The World?


Humankind has historically had a keen, and some would say unhealthy, interest in all things apocalyptic. The end of the world has been predicted many times, and yet here we all still are: large as life and twice as ugly. Despite the recent global hysteria surrounding the Large Hadron Collider – with many believing that it would create a black hole that would swallow the earth – it’s been working away quietly underground for a few years without any cataclysmic effects. Many disappointed doomsayers are now looking forward to the winter solstice on 21 December 2012, when they predict that this really will be the end of the world. No really. This time it’s definite. For sure.

Why all the fuss about the LHC?
The Large Hadron Collider must surely have been one of the biggest bogeymen in recent times. This 27km circular tunnel buried deep beneath 100 metres of rock on the border of France and Switzerland caused unprecedented hysterics. The scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (or CERN, if you prefer the French acronym) wanted to find out what happened in the universe just after the Big Bang. To be more precise, they wanted to see what happened to matter in the first billionth of a second after the Big Bang. The plan was for the Large Hadron Collider to collide protons to help us to understand more about dark matter. Most of our universe is made of dark matter – amazingly, only four per cent of the universe is made of actual matter (like planets, stars and so on). So the scientists were hoping to understand more about the invisible 96 per cent.

Black Holes and Paranoia
The Large Hadron Collider really caught the public’s imagination and we’ve indulged in some quite magnificent paranoid fantasies. And this time it wasn’t just the general public. More unusually, groups of scientists appealed to the US and European Courts to prevent the experiment from taking place. They filed lawsuits hypothesising that the experiment would create a giant black hole that would devour the universe. CERN offered reassurance at the time by pointing out that the chances of creating a black hole were remote. But in the highly unlikely event a black hole did occur, it would be miniscule and vanish in seconds.

Help! We’re creating another universe!
Another entirely groundless fear was that if we replicated the Big Bang, then we’d create another universe. But the experiment was designed to see what occurred after the Big Bang had taken place, rather than creating a full-scale Big Bang. So nightmare visions of a parallel universe are without foundation.

The Large Hadron Collider was switched on in 2008 and so far, we haven’t been sucked into any black holes. To date, there have been no sightings of any new universes, so maybe the end of the universe is not nigh. We can safely assume that there’s actually nothing to worry about, either from the Large Hadron Collider, or from any other particle accelerator for that matter. Still, there’s always the Winter Solstice to look forward to…

Robert is an avid science blogger who works on a science park and has a keen interest in particle physics.

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