Where Were You the Day of the 2nd Big Bang?

On September 10, 2008, mankind will boldly go where no mortal sentient being has gone before. And if that sounds Star-trekian, hold on to your hats–this is for real. The High Physics Magical Mystery Tour is about to begin.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is by far the largest Dr. Science Chemistry Set in the universe–an eight-story high tunnel that makes a 17 mile circle 300 feet underground in the bedrock under the border between France and Switzerland. It was ten years in development, then another 10 under construction. And why does this particular tool need to be so large and complex? Paradoxically, for exploring the very smallest, most unstable, short-lived objects and events in the cosmos.

How does it work? Simple. You take a proton and start it circling down that tunnel guided by enormous magnets that add just enough curve to the path so the “bullet” doesn’t go flying off into the vineyards of rural France. Now rev the bullet up faster and faster (starting on September 10) around the loop until it reaches .99991% the speed of light.

Got that? Good. Now start another beam around the loop facing the opposite direction. Now we’re having a par-TEE! Focus the proton beams, one going clockwise, the other going counterclockwise so that at some point before the end of this year–guess what!–they smash into one another! And what happens then?

Well, nobody is entirely sure about that. There are the optimists and there are the pessimists. One thing for sure: there will be lots of pieces from these collisions. Hopefully, you and I not be among them.

One outcome that is reasonably certain is to find an embarrasingly still-missing piece from the General Rulebook of Physics, a particle predicted more than 50 years ago by an elderly gentleman named Higgs who will probably live a few more months to see if his prediction is substantiated by the LHC. His colleagues have given this “thing” so much importance in the role of filling in the gaps of our incomplete explanations of Life, the Cosmos and Everything that it has been dubbed “the God Particle”. And on the day it is made real, the halleleujahs and amens of relieved physicists all over the world will be audible.

But finding the Higgs hardly seems to warrant creating a gizmo the size of Luxemborg and using enough electricity to light up Paris. Sure enough, it is the unknowns of this Little Bang–as it recreates the first cosmic instants of time and matter–that make physicists (and arm-chair science watchers like me) all goose-bumpy.

Granted, I barely have a clue to the significance of finding dark energy, dark matter, super-symmetries, extra dimensions, antimatter, or black holes deep underground here on Earth. Stuff Never Before Imagined could also pop out of the LHC later this year. The apparatus will remain in operation for some time, spitting out massive amounts of information into “The Grid” about which you will hear more in coming months. That system of computational power and speed promises to supercede today’s Internet by very many orders of magnitude; this technology will eventually reach Floyd County.

But as I say, there are also the pessimists. Some of them think nothing useful at all will come from this ostentatious display of physics hocus-pokus. In that case, there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth among the hopefuls and financiers. But what if The Big Oops happens? While vanishingly unlikely, suits have been filed by a few physicists who think that CERN, the parent agency of the LHC, has not done its homework to assure safety. Of the planet, that is.

The worst that could happen? Tiny black holes created in the collider could eventually gobble up all the High Priests of Physics, the LHC, Europe, Planet Earth and all matter and energy that for a brief time lived in the house that Jack built. Oh well. From Neatorama, Here’s the video.

On the other hand, assuming we avoid the inconvenience of utter disintegration, all of mankind could reap spin-off technologies from the LHC that dwarf the practical applications from previous pure-science investigations of cosmic properties–like electromagnetism. That energy we take so for granted and use every minute of every day now was a geeky and uninteresting topic to the lay public of those times that changed everything. Fellow lay-persons, we could be on the cusp of just such a change.

So, depending on how this grand story turns out, we are about to peer over the edge of the universe and see the cosmos in a new light; or the lights will soon wink out and mankind will disappear in the Big Whimper. With the threat of the latter, be sure and read this article in one sitting as it may be your only chance. Me, I’ve been trained in the survival of atomic annihilation, and I’ll be under my school desk with my hands over my head.

Watch the Sept 10 webcast of the Little Bang from CERN.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. “…until it reaches .99991% the speed of light.”

    You would think they would go for .99999% being that close already. I guess it’s not physically possible to actually reach the speed of light. These protons will not experience time as we know it, so if it starts on September 10, when will it reach max speed from the proton’s point of view? A rhetorical question. It’s all relative you know. September 10 or 11 is not a good day to experiment with ending life on the planet. You would think they would pick a more appropriate day to start this.

  2. Hmmm… maybe it is just me, but I find the idea of the tiny black holes gobbling up the house that Jack built to be oddly comforting. We’d never see the end coming – we’d just go out in the same state of ignorant bliss that we came in. None of the things that seem so important or worrisome or scary to us will matter at all. None of us will leave anyone behind to mourn our loss, or curse our names, or try to decipher our stinking lab notebooks that we didn’t quite keep up to standard… Go, CERN!

  3. Arrgh………I don’t think the black hole(s) scenario would necessarily be so quick and painless. One thing for certain, if the humans can try a thing, they will try a thing. Hence the seeds of self-destruction are well planted in human nature . Let’s just hope that the above experiment will luckily produce something positive, like unlimited energy or leak-proof roofing tar.