To most people, the world’s latest and greatest atom smasher sounds like the work of a villain in a James Bond movie. The Large Hadron Collider, built by the European Center for Nuclear Research at a cost of $8 billion, is a gigantic ring — almost 17 miles long — buried more than 150 feet underground near the border between France and Switzerland. Physicists hoping to learn more about what gives matter its mass will use the collider to accelerate tiny particles close to light speed and drive them against one another with enormous force.
But some detractors speculate that the LHC is so powerful it might produce a black hole that could swallow the earth or cause a chain reaction leading to, gulp, the end of the world.
Thankfully for those without apocalyptic longings, experts say that the end-of-the-world rumors are baseless, and that, while the particle smasher is powerful, it is not a threat.
“Unlike a nuclear reactor, when a particle accelerator malfunctions, it just stops operating. Nothing happens. It just stops,” said Judy Jackson, spokesperson for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, located in the suburbs of Chicago. “The worst possibility is that the beam of protons might damage the accelerator itself. In that event, it might be difficult to repair, but it would not harm any people or the environment.”
Still, the scale of the LHC is awe-inspiring to scientists and non-scientists alike. It is essentially the largest science-fair project ever created, and physicists hope it will unlock fundamental secrets of the universe by recreating conditions that existed at the time when the universe was created.
How does it work? It’s complicated, of course, but the LHC will beam atomic particles at each other at extremely high speeds, creating thousands of new particles and patches of very high energy. Scientists will then be able to monitor these new particles and potentially discover new laws of physics and — shades of Dr. Who – maybe even new dimensions of space.
The collider is a giant ring located in a tunnel below the French-Swiss border near Geneva. It consists of four huge detector chambers, known by their acronyms as ALICE, ATLAS, CMS and LHCb, and a “grid” of software for processing the data.
Built by the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, the LHC is an international collaboration between the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and Fermilab. The U.S. has invested $531 million in the experiment: $450 million from the Department of Energy and $81 million from the NSF.
There’s just one little thing — it hasn’t been turned on yet.
The project was delayed by a lawsuit filed in March of this year by two men in Hawaii, Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho, who claimed that the LHC could produce black holes or other dangerous particles known as “stranglets” and basically predicted the apocalypse. Wagner and Sancho say the aim of their litigation is to delay the start of the project until it has been proven absolutely safe.
Federal government attorneys say the “doomsday suit” should be thrown out of court because the six-year statute of limitations, which began around 1998, when the U.S. began contributing funds to the project, has expired. CERN physicists also released a safety report in late June concluding that the LHC is not dangerous.
“I’m certain that there’s a lot of pop culture out there that says scientists don’t have any concern for people’s safety and they only care about the experiment at hand, but that isn’t the case,” said Daniel Blair, of Georgetown University’s physics department. “I think the black hole claim is a non-issue.”
“This is someone trying to get their 15 minutes of fame out of something that should be seen as a good, not a potential evil.”
In other words, a James Bond villain’s doomsday machine this is not.
Moishe Pripstein, LHC Project Supervisor at the National Science Foundation, says the accelerator will hopefully first its beams toward the end of the summer, and begin beam collisions in the fall. Nothing gets scientists excited like the possibility of unlocking the fundamental secrets of the universe.
“I can tell you that in the international physics community, it is the top priority project,” Pripstein said in an interview on July 9. “When we have such exciting notions that we may be just on the verge of such discoveries, this type of excitement is bound to have transformative impact on our understanding of the universe.”
A key element of the experiment is the search for the elusive Higgs Boson, also known as the “God Particle,” a term coined by Nobel prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman
. The particle is supposedly the key to explaining why matter has mass.
“The general theory is that the Higgs particles generate a form of soup, or ether, through which other particles move and they pick up a drag that translates into mass on a microscopic scale,” Pripstein explains. “We’ve been looking for this for a long, long time. The reason we haven’t found it, or so we think, is that it’s too heavy. You need so much energy of these colliding beams to produce it.”
Jackson said no particle collider so far has been able to find the Higgs Boson, but evidence suggests that the discovery is close at hand.
Other particles that the LHC could potentially yield are known as dark matter and “strangelets.”
“Some of the terms associated with the project do sound like science fiction,” Pripstein conceded. “Dark matter is less speculative than others. It is additional mass in the universe that we can’t see; we can’t detect it because it doesn’t give off radiation.”
While dark matter sounds sinister, scientists say it’s really our friend.
According to Fermilab’s Symmetry magazine, dark matter is the glue that holds the universe together. It has its own gravitational pull, and without it, our world never would have developed in the first place.
As for the strangelets, Pripstein says the allegedly dangerous particles are purely hypothetical.
“They may or may not be science fiction,” he said, “There are some far-out theories that say these things exist. We haven’t seen any evidence of them, though, and if they were to be produced by an accelerator, they wouldn’t cause any harm. So we’re resting easy.”
Jackson said experiments with the LHC will likely continue for decades into the future, and she expects it will produce promising results.
“Our investment gives U.S. scientists and students the opportunity to collaborate with other scientists from the nations of the world in one of the great scientific adventures of our time,” she said. “We expect that discoveries at the LHC will change our understanding of the physical nature of the universe, and that ultimately they will yield many benefits to society.”
Pripstein said the buzz among the scientific community is a testament to the LHC’s vast potential.
“When you go to the CERN laboratory and you sit in the cafeteria, there are hundreds of scientists there from at least 40 or 50 different countries, and you hear at least a dozen or two dozen languages at the same time, and you can’t help but be taken in by all the excitement.”
– Stephanie Wynalek is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.