Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Friday, January 30, 2009

Will The Large Hadron Collider Destroy The Earth?

For those who don't know, the LHC is essentially a big atom-smashing device called a particle accelerator. It's a circular, underground facility about 17 miles in circumference. Using magnets for propulsion and guidance, the facility runs streams of protons through giant super-cooled tubes until they get them to a high enough speed, and then send two streams flying at each other from opposite directions. Some of the protons will invariably run into each other, smashing each other apart. The purpose is to allow scientists to study what exactly breaks off when we smash apart these tiny objects, to determine what the smallest building blocks of the universe are, and how they behave.

Of course, it only ran successfully for 9 days, none of the time at full capacity, before they broke it. The failure, along with the resulting repairs needed, are expected to keep it out of commission until next July. Depending on your perspective, that's either a huge disappointment, or the earth's stay of execution.

So what's their problem? Well, I won't even begin to try to explain the physics involved (mainly because I'm far too dumb), but the main worry is that there's an outside possibility that these collisions will produce a micro black hole. You know, black hole as in "that-thing-that-eats-everything-in-it's-path-like-the-blob-and-can't-be-escaped-by-anything-within-the-event-horizon". Worried yet? Here's why you shouldn't be. In a nutshell, while it is true that a black hole has such gravitational strength that nothing inside the event horizon can escape, black holes DO release Hawking radiation. Hawking radiation is a phenomenon in which a matter and anti-matter particle pop into existence (particles are cool like that) right on the edge of the event horizon of a black hole. One lands just inside of the horizon, the other lands just outside. The exterior particle escapes, and the interior one doesn't.

So how does this save us? Well, the particle falling in to the black hole must have a negative charge. This means that the black hole loses a tiny smidgen of energy every time this occurs. To a full-sized black hole, this isn't a problem. It eats far more debris and energy than it loses. But a micro black hole doesn't have any energy to spare. Because it is so tiny, and it's gravitational effects are so localized, it can lose more energy through Hawking radiation than it gains through eating other particles. That means that the holes will dissipate almost too quickly for us to know they were ever there. Unless of course, you believe these guys...

P.S. On a related note, wouldn't it be ironic if the Swiss were the ones to end up destroying the earth?