Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Science, and What It Might Do To Us All

Back in the days when I was a physicist (about 4 years ago now), I was a member of that venerable society, the Institute of Physics. For about a tenner a year, you got to put AMInstP (or something) after your name, and you got a magazine every month or so. The magazine was called Physics World, and yes, it was as geeky as it sounds, and of course therefore truly fascinating. It featured articles about the latest developments in physics, and also a prize crossword, which I mention just so I can tell you that I won it once and got a book on Superstring Theory, which has made me able to discuss in a more fact-based way the possibility that the universe exists in 14 dimensions, and has thereby increased my level of interestingness by several orders of magnitude (admittedly among a fairly select group of friends... no, actually, scrub that - among my friend Mark).

But getting back to the magazine; in those days, there was much excitement about the building of something called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. The LHC is essentially a large machine designed to fire stuff about in order to try to recreate conditions at the time of the Big Bang, in order to see what we can find out. This is what I love about physics: a collaborative effort by scientists from 85 countries, who hooked up to build a circular tunnel 27km in circumference, capable of firing protons about at the rate of 11,245 laps per second, costing over £5 billion so far, mainly for the purpose of just "seeing what happens". Splendid. Of course there is the usual talk that it will either prove God doesn't exist, or it won't; as ever, one can only be sure that whatever happens, both sides will quickly claim victory.

Anyway, I had kind of forgotten about this, what with one thing and another, until I read in the paper on Monday that they've got it built and they're about to switch it on.

So what's going to happen when they do? Now of course we are used to the switching-on of things; the results tend to depend on where the thing itself is based. For instance:
If it were designed, built and housed in Britain, it would blow a fuse and quietly die.
America: there would be much noisy fizzing and sparking; after a while it would quiet down and fall over.
Belfast: it would give weird results for several months; eventually someone would discover that a pack of hoods had got inside and sprayed 'Jamie Luvs Stephnie UVF 4EVA' on one of the interior mirrors; this would quickly be removed and the results obtained so far passed off as really quite good.
Zimbabwe: no results for months, and then it would declare Robert Mugabe president.

But since this is a collaborative effort and involves the Swiss, it is reasonably likely that it will actually 'work'; i.e. do something. The question is what that something will be; and in answer to this, people are starting to get a bit edgy.

This is where we need to make the acquaintance of another friend of mine from physics days: the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle. Basically this says that if you find yourself in a situation where there are a number of things going on, you can never really be quite sure what's happening. In an added twist, the more you try to pin things down, the more uncertain you will get. For instance, suppose I decide to go to the seaside next Wednesday. I can be sure that I'm going on Wednesday, but I can't know what the weather will be like. If, on the other hand, I decide to go to the seaside the next time the weather is good, then I can be sure of the weather but not sure when I will actually be going (although, glancing out the window, probably not any time soon). And it's much the same for particles, in a manner of speaking.

The Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle means that physicists tend to be a little on the uncertain side about pretty much anything. This is fine in the lab, but less good when they come up against modern media. The thing is, you see, old Heisenburg has made it impossible for physicists to be absolutely definite with regards to what will happen when the LHC is switched on, so when they are asked 'Could this create a black hole and wipe us all out?', they don't do what anyone else would do and just say 'no, certainly not' in a confident tone; they instead reply with something more like 'well, we don't think so', which of course, as far as the papers are concerned, is near enough to 'yes' as makes no difference, and so we have a frenzy, and people are telling us that once this machine is plugged in and turned on, we could be sucked into a massive black hole from which there is no escape.

There is already a group of people in Hawaii (of all places) who are trying to get a court to stop the thing from being started up in case it wipes us all out. In The Guardian on Monday, Michio Kaku attempted to allay these fears by pointing out (rather unwisely, I feel, given the context) that it is just as likely that flicking the LHC's 'On' switch could produce fire-breathing dragons (I mean, I can see where he's going with this, but I reckon that in a toss up between calming down the Hawaiians or simply unleashing another law suit, it could, with about equal odds, go either way). But anyway, the point stands that pretty much anything could, in theory, happen: we could all be sucked into a black hole, fire-breathing dragons could be unleashed, we could wake up to discover that we're all back in 1315, or 3015, or any year you care to name; equally, however, none of these is (For All Practical Purposes, as my Quantum Theory lecturer used to say) remotely likely to happen at all, and in fact, we're all at much greater risk of seahorses taking to the skies this afternoon and smothering us with a noxious mix of chemicals they've been quietly brewing at the bottom of the sea for all these years than we are of dying from a black hole unleashed by the LHC. Not that, theoretically speaking, the seahorse thing is impossible. I have to admit that.

So, when asked whether, by attempting to go back to the start of spacetime, physicists are going to wipe the whole show off the face of... well... of nothing, I guess... I think we can only bring to mind what Jaybercrow once said to Zoomtard: "Even the end of the world wouldn't be the end of the world", and hope for the best.

9 comments:

Josh Hughes said...

Hey, Josh here. Great blog too. Thanks for your comment son my blog, id be happy to link together.

Get in touch and have a nice day. J.

Robert I. Marsh II said...

With half of the 'Standard Model' missing, shrouded within a haze of mathematical pure speculation (guessing), and with the LHC being built upon these antiquated precepts, there is no telling what awaits CERN! It will take the LHC discoveries to extricate the physics community, from their stagnated, depressing, and quagmired current positions! At least one sector of the 'Standard Model' will receive a tsunami of change, that will send the mathematicians and physicists scrambling wildly to install these new, much needed corrections! There is no doubt, that the future world desperate energy needs lie in LHC technologies; however, the production course should be traveled with extreme caution! The LSAG 'safety report' covers only the lower energy 2008 'start-up' operation projections, and nothing toward the pre-planned decade of precision energy upgrades to come, set to begin in 2009! This report only covers previous public docket concerns, and speaks nothing of the 'new' emerging risk assessment meetings at CERN -- 'Behind Closed Doors'! CERN is grappling with multiple variance-calculation paradoxes, even as Michelangelo Mangano (and others) penned the now famous 'quiet the public' 'Safe Status' safety report! One such risk evaluation: ALICE heavy (Pb) ion collisions, scheduled to begin (once financed) in 2009. This project creates hyper-density plasmatic fields, that could affect a gravitational curvature, thus producing a compression singularity vortex, and an event-horizon expansion! This is known as the: Einstein-Rosen Bridge wormhole: QUANTUM WORMHOLE! Director General Robert Aymar, Catherine Decosse (ALICE), Michelangelo Mangano, Stephen Hawking, CERN Theory Unit, and LSAG are in discussions, at this time!

QMonkey said...

you allayed my fears on this a while a go.. thus i have eaten all my canned goods! you better be right

http://qmonkey.wordpress.com/2008/04/08/the-end-is-neigh/

wouldn't it be weird though... to all die at once. becasue of course no-one would know that actually we'd all gone. i suppose to one person that suddenly dies it makes no difference that everyone else has gone in the same instant too.

imagine i'm counting to 5 here and i never actually reach 5 because IT happened. 1..2..3..4..5

ah well.

whynotsmile said...

Hi Robert, you've clearly been following all this more than I have... maybe we should advise QMonkey to stockpile some cans of food again?

Although, if we all get sucked into a wormhole, I guess food won't be uppermost on our minds...

Robert I. Marsh II said...

CERN LSAG estimates the odds for a major disaster at 125M:1, within their present understanding of the 'Standard Model'. However, with the many ignored and discarded worldwide scientific views, that chose to differ in various ways, these added in, jets the odds to an 85% chance of some type of disaster scenario! Particle physicists run in pampered 'click' groups, and have a "Are you of the Body" mentality. If you do not precisely fit in, then you are out, buddy! With the scheduled 2009-2018 CERN precision energy upgrades planned, and a reasonable 15% chance of 'safe' success, then I would definitely buy some more can-goods, because YOU don't want to miss this show! You have a ring-side ticket, as do we all!

Robert I. Marsh II said...

I would surely suggest: canned 'Spaghetti', and a long super-staw!!!

Robert I. Marsh II said...

When I make a mistake: staw 'r' = straw, nothing serious happens to the world, but when the physicists make a mistake, there can be HELL to pay!!!

Robert I. Marsh II said...

But seriously, I spent a part of 1988 at CEBAF (Jefferson Labs) Newport News, VA., and everything I have written, is based upon those conversations, ongoing debates, and a current direct personal situation with CERN LSAG, on these issues. This is not a scam, or sham, or whatever you might think! Even I am trying to stay 'open-minded', and not like some, who trust blindly in the system. This time the system is outside of international jurisdiction!

robertmarshii said...

IMPORTANT: There is a CERN LHC Public Opinion Poll, at the web-link below! I decided to host it, when I found out that CERN personnel were scan-reviewing all articles, comments, threads, links,...etc., everything. So, make your vote count! The Poll closes on October 17, 2008. Thanks!

http://www.volconvo.com/forums/science-technology/22661-cern-lhc-alice-atlas.html