LHC Imminent… Total Doom or Knowledge Renaissance?

Tomorrow the Large Hadron Collider (or LHC) goes online at CERN to a mix of excitement and foreboding. The excitement comes from the scientific community, and a section of the public that is interested in expanding the frontiers of our knowledge. The doom comes from a small section of the scientific community, and a larger portion of the public worried that once the machine is turned on the world will end – possibly through the creation of small black holes.

Well for all my physics training (now largely forgotten, and particle physics was a low scoring final exam) I have to say I believe we’ll all be fine. I’m looking forward to finding out something new about the universe, and whether this whole ‘Higgs Boson’ thing is actually true or not – a brief summary, the Higgs Boson is the ‘God Particle’ which many scientists believe explains how everything has mass and hence we exist, and the LHC has been built to test that theory. Personally I find the whole Higgs boson theory over complex and raises more answers than it solves but then physics is littered with examples of where a complex, slightly mis-perceived theory can suddenly be re-conceived as something simple and elegant. Normally this happens where the fields of mathematics and physics combine, developing new techniques in tandem and expanding our understanding. Tensor maths was an example of this, allowing complex quantum mechanics theories to be expressed much more elegantly – when you finally understand it there’s one of those ‘eureka!’ moments as it all comes together. Of course, I’ve forgotten how it all works now.

The other point here is that we don’t really know what will happen in the LHC for sure. Black holes might be the least of our problems. The experiment helps up understand what happened at the beginning of time, the big bang. Current theories on how our universe started need things like the Higgs boson to work. Of course this raises the question, that if the hugely massive Higgs Bosons, which decay infinitely quickly into smaller particles,have not existed in our universe since it was created – then surely, possibly, creating them could precipitate another big bang? A worrying though. But then when you think about it, before the big bang there was literally nothing – not vacuum, but beyond vacuum – an absence of any matter and any rules of physics. There was zip, nada, void. We can’t even recreate those conditions in our universe, simply because the universe exists. Now whether or not kick starting another universe with different rules is possible within this existing framework is surely a question that current scientists are not equipped to answer, given the constraint of being in this universe – so fingers crossed if another reality gets created we end up with super powers of some kind, and really cool ones at that. Statistically that’s about as likely as the end of the world, so let’s be positive about this.

So, either we’ll all be fine come end of day tomorrow*, or we’ll have amazing supe powers to impress our friends with, or we’ll all be wiped out of existence so quickly we’ll never know. Which means Jerry Bruckheimer will have no time to direct another Hollywood blockboster where Bruce Willis saves us from certain doom. It’s not all bad.

* I say ‘tomorrow’ but in fact the LHC is already running, it’s just tomorrow they start smacking very very small bits of matter together at very very fast speeds. Statistically if nothing has happened with three years of them starting this experiment, then we’ll probably be fine.. and since that doesn’t correlate with the predicted date of eschaton according to the Mayans (December 21st, 2012) I’m sure the two facts are unrelated and we haven’t just turned on some kind of reality bomb.

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