Today’s ubiquitous topic in the geek-o-sphere is surely the successful test of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN… so if you were wondering exactly how it is that particle accelerators are supposed to discover hypothetical sub-atomic thingybobs with funny names, Ars Technica is running a series of articles that should fill you in on the basics. Start with Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Particle Smashers, and proceed from there.
Remember all that beef about the possibility of the LHC producing uncontrollable black holes that could DESTROY TEH WORLD OMG? Well, it’s still highly unlikely, but it turns out that the way these things are calculated aren’t as reassuring as we might perhaps want them to be:
The problem is compounded when the chances of a planet-destroying event are deemed to be tiny. In that case, these chances are dwarfed by the chances of an error in the argument. “If the probability estimate given by an argument is dwarfed by the chance that the argument itself is flawed, then the estimate is suspect,” say Ord and co.
Nobody at CERN has put a figure on the chances of the LHC destroying the planet. One study simply said: “there is no risk of any significance whatsoever from such black holes”.
Which means we are left with the possibility that their argument is wrong which Ord reckons conservatively to be about 10^-4, meaning that out of a sample of 10,000 independent arguments of similar apparent merit, one would have a serious error.
In layman’s terms, the above doesn’t mean that the LHC is dangerous, it just means that the assurances of its safety are predicated on flaky calculations. The difference between the two is left as an exercise for the reader. 😉 [via SlashDot; image by muriel_vd]
It was all fun and games until someone took the end-of-the-world speculations one step too far:
A 16-year-old girl in Madhya Pradesh, [India] allegedly committed suicide after watching news on channels about possibility of the end of earth following the atom-smasher experiment in Geneva that began on Wednesday…Her parents told reporters she was watching about the world’s biggest atom-smasher experiment in Geneva on news channels since the last two days following which she got restless and ended her life.
I’m divided between blaming the wildly inaccurate claims circulated by the media, and just a general lack of scientific education for believing these “doomsday” claims. But there’s this, regarding the media portrayal of the event in India, to support both:
The ministry found stories talking about the world coming to an end, shown in various dramatised forms, as unsuitable for “unrestricted public exhibition” and “unsuitable for children“. Media critics have pointed out that instead of looking at the Big Bang experiment as a scientific development, doomsday stories only succeeded in scaring naive viewers and annoying those who saw through the facade. “The experiment has been the talking point everywhere for all the wrong reasons,” a media critic said.
But then you’d have to be a staggeringly ignorant fool to believe it would have been, anyway.
Yes, just as planned, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was activated this morning… and while it hasn’t actually started doing collision tests yet, the boffins have been revving protons around the ring and checking everything works as it’s supposed to. And apparently, it’s going better than they had hoped. Here’s a computer representation of particles produced by protons smashing into collimators*:
The Holy Grail of the Large Hadron Collider project is a subatomic particle known as the Higgs Boson, the conjectural key to the Unified Theory that physicists have been chasing after for years.
However, not everyone thinks it will be that simple – Steven Hawking himself has a $100 bet that the Higgs will not be found. Particle physics isn’t my field (arf!), but I’d be hesitant to bet against a guy with Hawkings’s track record. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. [image courtesy CERN via New Scientist article]
* – No, I’m not entirely sure what a collimator is, either. And I’ve probably mis-termed or described at least one thing wrong in the above post, because that’s what happens when writers try to report on Big Physics; I try my best, but I’m not on a journalist’s salary here. I’m sure some of our friendly readers in the field will correct any errors with their usual alacrity. 🙂
In addition to searching for the ‘God’ particle that is the Higgs, CERN have been making a vast ‘supergrid’ to transfer the vast volumes of data created by the LHC supercollider every second to the universities studying it around the world (currently including myself). The sheer amount of data at the LHC – around 15 Petabytes a year – means a whole new system has been made to spread it to other institutions outside of the collider in Switzerland.
The grid still has some issues to work out but is showing signs of real potential to blow the current internet out of commission in a few years. The grid uses fibre-optic connections and high speed routers to transfer data. It could be as much as 10,000 times as fast as current broadband, allowing movie-sized files to transfer in seconds. Of course, this technology is currently only in use in the world of High Energy Particle Physics but, like the World Wide Web before it, what is invented at CERN tends to propagate out to the rest of us before too long.