Water on ancient Mars, talks of colonizing the Moon, close encounters with asteroids, the discovery of Earth-like planets around distant suns, NASA’s Gravity Probe B testing Einstein theory of General Relativity, etc., etc., etc.
I love all this! I almost cannot believe it is happening and I sometimes feel as if I’m living in a dream. I feel dizzy with pleasure only when I think about cosmology, astrophysics, particle physics, or space-time, to mention just a few.
So what is this all about?
It’s about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) being switched on yesterday at CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) underneath the French-Swiss border near Geneva.
The LHC is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. In it, guided by superconducting electromagnets, two beams of subatomic particles – protons or lead ions – called “hadrons”, will travel in opposite directions at 99.999% of the speed of light before colliding with one another. According to the CERN website, “The particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing needles from two positions 10 km apart with such precision that they meet halfway!”
The purpose? To replicate the conditions at the beginning of the Universe, a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. To further the study of the very fabric of the Universe; to reveal the nature of dark matter, an invisible hypothetical matter whose presence can be inferred from the gravitational effects on visible matter; to discover evidence of the hypothetical Higgs boson, popularised as “the God Particle”, the elementary particle that might give other particles their mass.
Obviously, there are voices that criticise the project and even battle it legally in courts of law. “It must be stopped,” they shout. Their fear is that a black hole will be formed in the process, and that this black hole could assume an orbit within Earth, consuming it in microscopic amounts until the whole planet is gone.
I don’t mind a good doomsday story but this is just not it. I am far more interested in this as an example of the heights the human minds are reaching and in the advancement of science. And although I generally believe that, most likely, we will never reach TRUE or ABSOLUTE knowledge, every little step towards it is a reason for hope and joy.
I’ll leave you with the video of Kate McAlpine, the 23-year-old Michigan State University graduate and science writer who raps about the LHC. I think it’s a great “science rap.”