9. The World is NOT About to End!
In September 2008, many of the world’s less reputable so-called “newspapers”, and many internet news sources, such as the news pages of ISP web sites, published ridiculous, scaremongering stories, with such headlines as “Will the World End on Saturday?” This related to the scheduled starting up, on 10 September, of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, and the completely unfounded, irrational fear of some people that it would, or might, “create a black hole which would destroy the Earth”.
I can honestly say that I have seldom, in my entire life, read such a totally absurd, paranoid load of drivel, and for even the most “dumbed down” of media to report it as a “news” item ( my ISP, which shall remain nameless, actually had the nerve to report it under the heading of “Science” ), with its obvious potential to frighten the gullible and provoke hysteria, was irresponsible to an incredible degree!
9.1. The media stupidity – and its consequences
Much of this stupidity arose from misunderstandings of what the scientists operating the LHC were actually trying to do. For example, the press releases stated that they hoped to “recreate conditions immediately after the Big Bang”; this was somehow transformed, in some of the less reputable media, to a claim that they were “trying to recreate the Big Bang” – which isn’t the same thing at all! ( The latter wording inferred that they were somehow trying to “create” an entire new Universe – which is obviously absurd. )
A few scientists also predicted that the accelerator might conceivably “create mini-black holes” – meaning microscopic ones, with masses comparable to that of an atomic nucleus, which would exist for only a minute fraction of a second. But inevitably, the mass media missed – or perhaps deliberately ignored – those qualifications. Most people have probably heard, however vaguely, of black holes – which are commonly portrayed as “monster” objects far away in space, with immense gravity, which “suck in” and destroy anything which comes too close. They are now known to exist – both “ordinary” ones, with masses a few times that of the Sun, and “supermassive” ones in the cores of galaxies, with masses of billions of suns, which “swallow” entire stars. While these descriptions are over-simplified and sensationalised, they give the general idea. So it was virtually inevitable that the aforementioned prediction of “mini-black holes” would be distorted, by those with no knowledge of physics, into “The LHC is going to create a black hole!”, which in turn led to the delusion that said black hole would “swallow the Earth”…
Some of the media referred to the LHC as “the Doomsday Machine”, and went on to accuse the scientists of being “irresponsible lunatics”, and so on; in reality, the same description could be justifiably applied to those news editors who allowed these idiotic stories to be published, without bothering to research the real facts. Does anyone actually imagine that the scientists would be doing these experiments, if they believed that there was even the slightest possibility of such dire consequences? One of the physicists involved, Professor Brian Cox, summed it up, saying, “The safety of my wife and children is far more important to me than finding the Higgs Boson!”
I have to wonder whether any of these so-called “journalists” were actually stupid or naïve enough to believe the garbage they wrote, or whether it was all just a cynical exercise in stirring up “controversy” where there was none. If the latter, then they took media irresponsibility to an entire unprecedented new level!
At first, I thought that all of this was simply so stupid as to be laughable – until I read something utterly appalling. In India, shortly before the activation of the LHC, a 16-year-old girl committed suicide – because she genuinely believed that the world was about to end, as a result of reading this same kind of stupidity! Suddenly, it was no longer at all funny, was it????!!!! I hope that all those editors around the world, who published all this irresponsible drivel, are rightly proud of themselves…
OK, so this happened in a “third world” country, where we might imagine that people are ignorant of science. ( This is itself a ridiculous fallacy, as India has its own nuclear energy programme, and its own space programme; it has recently launched a probe to the Moon. ) But given the appalling levels of scientific ignorance which now prevail in the UK and other western nations, thanks to the dumbing down of our education system, it isn’t hard to imagine the same happening here. I personally know someone – an otherwise intelligent and sensible person – who genuinely believed that there was a possibility of “the end of the world”; thankfully, I managed to convince her otherwise.
9.2. So what is the LHC?
At this point, I’ll say a few words about what the Large Hadron Collider is – as the descriptions given in the mass media probably left many people thoroughly confused.
As its name implies, it’s a large machine which collides hadrons! Hadrons are a class of subatomic particles, which includes protons and neutrons. But describing it as “large” is something of an understatement.
Particle accelerators of various kinds have been used by particle physicists for the last several decades, to study various kinds of interactions between subatomic particles at high energies. Their purpose is to accelerate beams of particles, using powerful electromagnets, to speeds very close to that of light, so that the particles carry huge amounts of kinetic energy, and then cause those particles to collide with various “targets”, to study the resultant reactions. Such experiments have often proved the existence of various particles, which were predicted by theory, but which had never previously been detected. A major aim of the LHC is to detect one such hypothetical particle, known as the Higgs Boson.
A slight digression is necessary here, for the benefit of the uninitiated. It’s a well-known consequence of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, that no material object can possibly travel faster than the speed of light in vacuum ( which is a constant, traditionally denoted by the symbol c ) – or, for that matter, at a speed equal to c. An object can, if given enough energy, be accelerated to a speed as close to c as you care to imagine, but it can never quite reach it. This is because, as a particle is accelerated to speeds comparable to c, its mass, which is its resistance to acceleration, increases; it therefore takes steadily more and more energy to accelerate it further.
This increase is exponential. For example, after a particle has been accelerated from zero to a speed of 0.99 c, it then takes ten times more energy to accelerate it further from 0.99 c up to 0.9999 c – then ten times more again to accelerate it to 0.999999 c, and so on. If a particle could actually reach the speed of light, its mass would become infinite; that’s precisely why it can’t!
( Explaining why this happens is beyond the scope of this article – though the maths involved is actually quite simple. If you don’t want to take my word for it, look it up in any reference on Special Relativity. )
So to talk about the speed of the particles in an accelerator is pretty meaningless; it’s customary to refer to the energy to which they have been accelerated.
The LHC is by far the biggest such machine ever built; it’s operated by CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research ( the initials represent the equivalent title in French ), at its headquarters on the Swiss-French border near Geneva. To put it simply, it’s a very large circular vacuum tube, 27 kilometres in circumference, surrounded by many huge superconducting electromagnets. Two beams of particles, such as protons, are injected into it - having already been accelerated to relativistic speeds by a smaller accelerator - which travel in opposite directions. After being accelerated further, to even higher energies, these particle beams are allowed to collide head-on, resulting in extremely energetic reactions between them.
( Thirty years ago, when I was a teenager, the cutting edge of particle physics was one of the LHC’s predecessors, the Super Proton Synchrotron, which was then under development at CERN. This was, in those days, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, at a mere four kilometres in circumference. Today, the SPS is being used as the “feeder”, to perform merely the first stage of acceleration, prior to injecting the particle beams into the LHC! )
Those “Will the World End on Saturday?” headlines were even more ridiculous, given that at the time of startup, in September 2008, the LHC wasn’t actually colliding anything! When such a complex machine first begins operating, it stands to reason that the machine itself needs to be extensively tested, before it can begin to be used to conduct experiments. Initially, it was being used only to accelerate a single particle beam in a single direction, to test the system; it would have been several more months, before the first colliding experiments began.
As it turned out, the LHC had been up and running for only nine days, when something went wrong. The electromagnets are supercooled with liquid helium, to just a few degrees above absolute zero. A fault in the cryogenics caused a failure of several magnets, which resulted in some fairly serious damage to the accelerator. So it had to be shut down for several more months for repairs; at the time of writing ( June 2009 ), it isn’t yet ready to resume operating. No doubt when it does, the idiotic headlines will appear all over again…
9.3. The LHC – Facts and Fallacies
The aforementioned scaremongering headlines arose as a result of three major fallacies, concerning the LHC and its purpose, which were repeatedly regurgitated in the media. I shall now refute each of these in turn, and present the corresponding real facts. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do have a degree in physics ( astrophysics, to be precise ) – and what follows is obvious to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the subject. The quoted phrases here appeared in the “news” pages of my ISP’s web site – and I place the word “news” in quotes for good reasons! – but variations thereof were commonplace throughout the “moron media”.
Fallacy 1: “The LHC is the most powerful scientific experiment ever conducted.” Utter drivel! It is, of course, the most powerful experiment or instrument of its kind – but the stories ( perhaps purposefully? ) omitted those vital last three words. It’s obvious, to anyone with half a brain, that “the most powerful scientific experiments ever conducted” were the test detonations of thermonuclear bombs – involving energies a couple of dozen orders of magnitude greater than those in the LHC. Indeed, the amounts of energy involved in the LHC are really quite puny, in terms of the everyday world, as I shall show later.
Fallacy 2: “Scientists are attempting to recreate the Big Bang.” Again, utter drivel! Such a concept is impossible, by definition! Think about it; in order to “recreate the Big Bang”, they would have to know what the initial conditions were, which led to the Big Bang – and this, by definition, cannot possibly be known! The often-asked question ( by the uninformed ) of “What came before the Big Bang?” is meaningless; as time itself came into being at the instant of the Big Bang, there was no “before”. Physicists can extrapolate backwards to a certain point in time, a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, but cannot go further back than that point, as the laws of physics as we know them break down.
What was actually stated in the more reputable media – and even here, I wouldn’t like to comment on its accuracy – was that they hoped to “recreate conditions immediately after the Big Bang” – which is a completely different thing from “recreating” the Big Bang itself!
Fallacy 3: “The LHC will produce mini-black holes.” This is extremely unlikely. I don’t know enough about particle physics to be able to say that it’s impossible – but if it did happen, they would be absolutely minute black holes, with masses comparable to that of an atomic nucleus, and would have no noticeable effect whatsoever, except on a few other subatomic particles in their immediate - meaning microscopically close - vicinity. Furthermore, they would then cease to exist, due to Hawking radiation, in a very small fraction of a second. ( It’s commonly stated that “nothing, not even light, can escape from a black hole” – which is of course why they are so called. But this isn’t entirely true. Hawking radiation is a quantum mechanical process, by which particles can escape from inside the event horizon of a black hole; it’s predicted that all black holes will eventually “evaporate” via this process. For stellar-mass black holes, this will take an unimaginably enormous length of time – but for the hypothetical microscopic ones, which we are talking about here, it would happen very rapidly. )
How exactly does anyone imagine that something with the mass of an atomic nucleus, existing for a fraction of a second, could possibly “destroy the Earth”?
9.4. A matter of energy – The LHC and cosmic rays
Now for a fact which some may find surprising – but which is obvious to anyone with any knowledge of astrophysics. ( Remember, I have a degree in it, so trust me. ) Every day, millions of cosmic ray particles from space hit the Earth – or to be more precise, interact with atoms in the upper atmosphere – which carry far greater amounts of energy than the particles being accelerated in the LHC! Often thousands of times more energy; occasionally millions of times more! And the Earth is still here, isn’t it???!!!
Think about it; the particles in the LHC are being accelerated by a magnetic field, generated by a man-made machine. Cosmic ray particles have been accelerated by the magnetic field of the entire Galaxy, for a period of millions of years!
When scientists say that the particles in the LHC are being “accelerated to enormous energies”, they simply mean enormous energies, by the standards of subatomic particles. They are still pretty piddling energies, by the standards of the everyday world! I believe that a figure has been mentioned of 1014 ( that’s a one followed by fourteen zeroes, or 100 million million ) electron volts. The electron volt, abbreviated to eV, is a unit used to express the energies of subatomic particles; it’s an extremely small amount of energy, compared with any more familiar units, such as joules or calories.
The most energetic cosmic ray particle so far detected ( those with ultra-high energies are of great interest to astrophysicists, and there are many experiments to detect them ) was a proton with energy of the order of 1021 eV; that’s ten million times more than the particles in the LHC! Now what does that equate to, in more familiar terms? Well, it’s about equivalent to the kinetic energy of a tennis ball served at a speed of 100 kilometres per hour – an absolutely immense amount of energy for a single proton to carry, but a pretty trivial amount of energy in terms of the familiar macroscopic world.
We’re talking here about energies of 1014 eV per particle, and the LHC will be accelerating millions of particles at a time. One physicist stated that the total amount of energy in the particle beams will be about equivalent to that of a herd of charging elephants. So that’s a seriously huge amount of energy, for a beam of subatomic particles – but still no big deal in the macroscopic world. Herds of elephants stampede every day in Africa, and do no damage to anything, except to a few trees and bushes which get in the way.
So I shall ask again; how exactly did anyone possibly imagine that something with less than the energy of a tennis ball – or with even that of a herd of elephants - might “destroy the Earth”???
I rest my case.
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