Thursday, September 11, 2008

Of Atom-Smashers, “God Particles”, Black Holes, and the Large Hadron Rap

The stuff of my much beloved science fiction is coming to life. It’s been doing that continuously for a few years now, so much that, unfortunately, for many it has almost become trivial – just another title in the not-so-important news. (I remember 1997 when I was watching 3D-images of landscapes on Mars live on the Internet!)

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.”



11 comments:

BernardL said...

I think the problem came about when one of the scientists said, 'We're pretty sure it won't create a black hole'. Huh????? :)

Aine said...

I felt a tremble under my feet when I read the news a few days ago. How exciting! To think we may actually understand the unknowns about the universe some day-- it's just awesome!

Ropi said...

Modern life is getting a science fiction. Maybe when I become old we will talk about Star Wars as a historical movie. :P

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Hmm, I'm deeply sceptical about the LHC. I don't trust scientists - too often they have done things expecting x result and ending up with something quite other, and often calamitous - medical science is a key point in question. No, there's too much playing god here without really knowing what they're doing. I'm not Doomsday about it, but I remain suspicious.

Vesper said...

Bernard, didn't they say that it might create microscopic ones that will disappear before even we'd know they were there?

Awesome it is, Aine!

I hope that happens, Ropi! :-)

Vanilla, it seems rather ambitious, and there might be hidden agendas (new weapons for instance), but I also think that we ache for knowledge...

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Ah, but knowledge is all too often a dangerous thing - the more we know, the less we understand...
xxx

jason evans said...

I'm so eager to read about their discoveries. :)

Sarah Hina said...

I share your excitement, Vesper. I don't know what's more exhilarating--the possible answering of these questions, or human's ability to grasp such infinite complexities.

These stories make me feel good about humanity. Thanks for sharing!

Vesper said...

Me too, Jason! :-)

I'm so glad, Sarah! We think alike in many aspects. :-)

Sarah Hina said...

Just had to add, I know! ;)

Seriously, I love coming to your blog, Vesper. I really do feel a kinship with your style of writing, and your personality. I always look forward to seeing what you come up with next!

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