The Richard Dawkins website today LHC carried the news that the LHC – the Large Hadron Collider – had created a mini-big bang. Here’s what I had to say before it was up and running and subsequently in The Guardian, in January 2009, with tongue in cheek. But a doubt lingers …
I had my say on CERN and the LHC on this site on 10th September 2008, before the switch on, and before the ensuing problems. What I said there was essentially a repeat of an earlier post to an American group of online newspapers. It was partly tongue-in-cheek, because of something else I had written in 2006 (google Moridura) but significantly a cry of concern from a layman faced with the impenetrability of the maths of particle physics and the complacency of the scientists involved. The original American post and the Guardian post brought derision from younger scientists on the Internet - the older ones were kinder and more understanding, if more than a little patronising.
The essence of my concern was as follows.
An experiment with particle acceleration at the Brookhaven Labs in New York in 1999 produced unexpected results during the experiment - in the scientists' own words,
" ... a ball of plasma was produced, absorbing ten times the number of particle jets from the collision of gluons and quarks as predicted. The fireball thus produced had, in the words of the startled experimenters "the characteristics of a black hole "
However the scientists involved quickly assured the world that even if the ball of plasma was a black hole, it was not thought to pose a threat. But to me, it raised the question that if If a particle accelerator of the modest size of the Brookhaven Laboratory could do this, what could the infinitely larger CERN LHC - the Large Hadron Collider, where scientists hope to produce the mysterious Higgs boson particle, the missing link in particle interactions, sometimes irreverently called the God particle - produce?
It wasn't just me -the scientific community had also expressed a number of concerns over safety. On any engineering work on the scale of the LHC project, there will be the normal hazards of large construction projects. But in addition to these, there were deep uncertainties of an almost inconceivable nature in the potential outcomes of the particle acceleration. Some of these involved gravity.
1. Formation of a black hole (a singularity) that "accretes ordinary matter".
2. Initiation of a translation to a lower vacuum state.
3. Formulation of a stable strangelet that accretes ordinary matter.
The report authors go on to say that "exotic gravitational effects may occur at immense densities." (This reminded me of the tendency of wild life experts, when showing off terrifying man-eating creatures, to describe them as "exotic").
However, the scientists cheerfully dismissed the prospect of a black hole being created. When the unexpected results (by a factor of 10!) occurred in the actual experiment in 2005, the scientists observed that
" ... even if the ball of plasma was a black hole, it was not thought to pose a threat ---"
Well, we must wait and see - or not see, if it all goes pear shaped.
Since all this, of course, the masters of the Universe in global finance have seen their complex equations go spectacularly wrong, because of events that, in their calculations, should not have occurred more than once in ten thousand years. It is interesting that their equations were based on work done by, yes, rocket scientists!
Leaving aside the fact that some high-level mathematicians have been clinically mad (e.g. the Nobel prize winner for games theory, memorably played by Russell Crowe in a movie), however mind-bending the math is, and however responsible and eminent the scientists, there is always human error, human cupidity, and the instinct to hide embarrassing facts, well demonstrated by the nuclear industry for over sixty years, and of course, in the words of Harold Macmillan - "Events, dear boy, events ..."