Large Hadron Collider at CERN flicks on

Today (10 Sept 2008) the Large Hadron Collider at CERN starts shooting a high-speed high-energy beam of protons around its 27 kilometres of high-tech, computer-controlled, 3.8m-wide, £5bn magnetic tubing after months of preparation, years of building and decades of planning. It is undoubtedly ‘an historic moment’ for science: it is the epitome of the progress of science, engineering and organisation that man has made over the centuries, and represents a huge step forwards for mankind.

If all goes well, it is hoped the collider will uncover the elusive Higgs Boson, dubbed informally ‘the God Particle’, the particle which gives mass to other particles. It is thought to give gauge bosons like the W and Z particles (responsible for the weak nuclear force) mass but not photons (EM radiation); the finding of this particle would unfortunately lose Stephen Hawking a bet of $100. The Elegant Universe also mentioned the possibility of the discovery of the graviton (a closed string free to move between branes), the thus far theoretical gauge particle of gravity, and indeed other particles, including ones providing evidence for supersymmetry, predicted by String Theory (another huge theory which may be proven or broken by the findings of the LHC).

If all goes wrong, according to the interesting but incorrect media-hyped grunts of pseudo-scientists, the Earth will be sucked into a black hole and/or be turned into a smouldering mass of ‘strange’ (or is it ‘charmed’?) particles. I have lamented this issue before, and now the media have yet again taken the word of a qualification-less laymen and amplified it to the point that the fallacious argument resounds more strongly than the truth. Presumably an ignorant yet arrogant individual read somewhere that singularities might be produced in high-energy particle collisions at CERN. Presumably (s)he failed to read the next paragraph, which probably explained that such singularities would be so devoid of mass that they would evaporate almost instantly releasing comparatively innocuous particles in the process, and ended up writing a letter to the real scientists, who were almost certainly working hard to progress human understanding ever further beyond apparent boundaries and obstacles. The letter warned the scientists that ‘if the world ends [the pseudo-scientists] will kill them’. I think this sample of their intellect leaves not much more to be said.

Some wonder whether the LHC is just a waste of money. My response couldn’t be put better than Stephen Hawking’s: ‘Both the LHC and the space programme are vital if the human race is not to stultify, and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one tenth of a percent of world GDP. If the human race cannot afford that, it doesn’t deserve the epithet ‘human”.

So I hope that, whatever obstacles fly in the face of this audacious, ambitious and hugely important project, results will be published over the Winter, and great progress is made towards humans’ ultimate understanding of the universe – even if it means proving String Theory! As Stephen Hawking put it, ‘Whatever the LHC finds, or fails to find, the results will tell us a lot about the structure of the Universe’.

Stephen Hawking references taken from a BBC News Article


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