Saturday, August 16, 2008

Large Hadron Collider

In a few weeks or so, given no further mishaps, scientists are going to test what is known about particle physics. Lots of money and time has been spent on the project, and given human nature, at least human nature raised in the western culture, once its built, no doubt it will be used.

First, a little background:

There is a tiny bit of concern about the formation of tiny black holes and strangelets and other odd phenomena that waver between reality and imagination, but rest assured, CERN issued a report in June asserting that all is just dandy.

My interest in the project is less the doomsday prophesying than our response to the prophets.

How much risk is acceptable?

Last year they center had an accident with one of its large magnets:

"Last Tuesday we took a pratfall on the world stage," said Fermilab Director Pier Oddone in a message posted yesterday on the lab's Web site. "What the analysis shows so far is that something extraordinarily simple was missed in the design. We do many very complex engineering projects successfully that require sophisticated engineering skills and advanced computing tools. We test the complex features we design thoroughly. In this case we are dumbfounded that we missed some very simple balance of forces."

Dumbfounded by simple Newtonian physics.

The current start date is September 10--I don't think I'll assign any homework that night, just in case.

Hyundai (at least in the New York metropolitan area) is offering an end of the world sale based on the launch date for the LHC.

"It's probably the closest to God that we'll get."

Jos Engelen, Cern's chief scientist
quoted by Ian Sample
"In the beginning: scientists get ready to hunt for God particle"
The Guardian, November 20, 2006

And we trust his group to tell us if it's safe.

Now I am not going to lose any sleep over the possibility of a doomsday scenario (though I might wear a tinfoil hat to bed), but there are some issues that bear discussion:
  1. Americans paid over a half billion dollars towards constructing a machine that has a leading international physicist who runs the project talking about getting chummy with God
  2. There's been little talk about how much risk is acceptable when physicists try to get chummy with elemental particles
  3. Even the brilliant among us can mess up--if Dr. Engelen wants to bring God into this, maybe, just maybe, God had a hand in the exploding magnet
  4. Hubris.
I may open it up to discussion with my freshmen class the first week of school, just in case we don't get to the second week.

It's a discussion we should all be having.


botheredbybees said...

things haven't changed much since pandora's time - as a species we just can't resist poking at things to see what happens. I wonder if hope will survive this time round?

doyle said...

Hope might survive, even if we don't.

Plenty of cultures have managed to resist poking in some things, but in our culture, one of the few technological taboos is acknowledging taboos.

Didn't take us long to use nuclear weapons. And, sadly, we will likely use them again.

Pandora was, as the story goes, the first woman. Her jar held evil things, all of which escaped but hope.

I think hope is what's going to get us killed.

I hope it doesn't.

Jim Purdy said...

I've Got Einstein on my Mind
by Jim Purdy

Listen to me one and all, Oh dear,
For bad news I bring, The End is Near.

In the UK, the Daily Mail tried to clue us in,
That those mad scientists are going to do us in.

Yes indeed, they have published a news article
Warning us of a runaway sub-atomic particle.

The Large Hadron Collider is to blame,
And our universe will soon end in flame.

Oh man, the fireworks will be spectacular,
It'll be so big, I won't need my binocular.

As the end nears, some may grieve and mourn,
But I'll enjoy the show, just eating my popcorn.

Someday I'll entertain grandkids with the story I'll tell,
Oh. Wait. I guess I won't have any grandkids, oh well.

In college, we laughed at those physics dorks,
Always talking about their tachyons and quarks.

Yes, soon the world will be gone, we'll be no more,
Thanks to guys named Fermi, Heisenberg and Bohr.

So, as I await the end of all mankind,
I've got Albert Einstein on my mind.

doyle said...

I may have to recite that tomorrow in class.

I did bring the LHC up in class. One child actually paid attention, googled it, then announced to the class the next day that we might all be doomed.

Another child got visibly upset, and on my 2nd day I had my first crisis. After a bit of explaining, things settled down a bit.

Can't wait to discuss evolution.