Understanding the origins of the universe has consumed philosophers, prophets, religious leaders, scientists and politicians since intelligent inquiry into our origins began. They have all been pursuing the same seemingly endless question – where, how and why did it all begin?
Well as a result of events in Switzerland over the past few weeks, we might soon be able to find out. Just outside Geneva, the world’s largest and most costly super collider made headlines last week for breaking the record for the highest-energy particle beams ever produced by humankind: 3.5 tera-electron volts.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was created as the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. It was designed to offer a definitive mans of testing modern physics’ most vital inquiries -the efficacy of the Big Bang theory; identifying the original particle which led to the explosion of all matter (referred to as Higgs boson) as well as ascertaining the source of dark matter, which accounts for 23% of the mass-energy of the observable universe.
In the experiment on March 30, protons were whipped to more than 99 percent of the speed of light and to record-high energy levels around a 17-mile underground magnetic track outside Geneva. They crashed together inside apartment-building-size detectors, designed to offer insights into the beginning of the universe.
The scientists of the LHC now hope to begin developing entirely new physical principles and possibly even to generate the Higgs boson particle itself, which, of course, has never before been observed.
However there are some deep dangers associated with such experimentation that few physicists seem willing to talk about. In 2008, two mathematicians took to wondering what would happen were the LHC inadvertently to generate a stable black hole. Nothing good, it seems. Black holes are expected to be generated all the time at the LHC, but a stable black hole ( or a micro- black hole) would not be just a planetary but a solar-system wide catastrophe. It would mean that in a short while, all existence in our solar system could be sucked into a nothingness from which there would be no recovery. In simple words, it would be the end of our world.
Sounds too fantastic and apocalyptic to be true? Well that’s exactly what the scientists in Geneva think and so they have assigned a very very low, (although, note, not a zero) probability to it. Yet despite their assurances, fearfulness about the experiments has not abated.
The safety concerns regarding the LHC collisions have in fact attracted widespread media attention. Major newspapers have reported doomsday fears in connection with the collider, including The Times, The Guardian,The Independent, The Sydney Morning Herald,and Time.
In the run up to the commissioning of the LHC, Walter L. Wagner (an original opponent of the abandoned American Super Collider), Luis Sancho (a Spanish science writer) and Otto Rössler (a German biochemist) expressed concerns over the safety of the LHC, and attempted to halt the beginning of the experiments through petitions to the US and European Courts. Potential risks articulated by others include the creation of theoretical particles called strangelets, magnetic monopoles and vacuum bubbles.
All petitions to the Federal Courts in the United States, the European Court of Human Rights and the German Constitutional Court, have failed.
After the dismissal of the U.S. federal lawsuit, The Daily Show’s correspondent John Oliver interviewed Walter L. Wagner, who declared that he believed the chance of the LHC destroying the earth to be 50%, since it will either happen or it won’t.
Therefore, while the possibility of the creation of a stable micro-black hole remains extremely remote, we should not fool ourselves that it can’t happen. And this raises a curious and interesting question: Just how should rational men and women assess an event of very low probability but one carrying infinitely negative consequences?
How indeed? As the philosopher and mathematician David Berlinski argues, the fact is that no one knows.
” Even more curious, ” he says ” is the absolute and inflexible unwillingness of the particle physicists even to concede in their imagination that the decision to proceed with such experiments should not be theirs to make. Those raising what everyone once understood as a controversial objection to the LHC have needed to go to court. But what can a court say or do beyond deferring to the particle physicists themselves?”
That is of course exactly what happened in the European and U.S. law suits. The dangers implicit in this experimentation should be not the sole province of particle physicists who have an obvious agenda to fulfill by proceeding with the project – one which involves huge amounts of funding as well as avenues to great fame.
Although the scientists at LHC, responding to the alarms, conducted their own extensive report in 2003 to determine the risks of an earth threatening micro-black hole and which were found to be infinitesimal, we need to remember that the experiment has never actually been performed and the risk factors are built on only theoretical models.
Whatever the scientific evidence for or against the experiments, the issue certainly is one that deserves much wider public discussion and review. For in the end, the odds are not really the issue. It is the irreversible consequences of such experimentation – a matter which should command our complete attention.