We’re all going to die. Just not all together in a couple of months when the Large Hadron Collider is turned on.
Built near Geneva on the border between France and Switzerland, it’s the biggest particle accelerator ever constructed by an order of magnitude. These machines shoot highly-energized subatomic particles at each other in an attempt to see what happens at the very extremes of existence. It all has to do with very esoteric particle physics, and an attempt to understand gravity, electromagnetism, and the other fundamental forces and particles that make up the universe.
It should be fairly obvious at this point that I have no idea what I’m talking about with all this. Of course neither does the overwhelming majority of people who will hear about the project, and that’s what’s interesting about it — never before has a project this huge been so opaque. And I do mean huge: the Hadron Collider is a massive 17-mile long underground tunnel with adjoining facilities. It’s total cost is somewhere around $8 billion in US dollars, funded by numerous governments and hundreds of universities. When it’s running, it will produce 10 to 15 petabytes of data per year (that’s 500 Libraries of Congress). A cross-section of the tunnel looks like this:
Now, here’s the cool part of all this: the Hadron Collider will produce some interesting things, including Higgs bosons, the subatomic particles that give mass to other subatomic particles, strangelets, essentially microscopic quark stars, and micro black holes. And it’s the latter that have folks a bit alarmed, because while we don’t really understand any of this stuff, we know that black holes are, like, bad. They swallow things. Do we want to be deliberately creating them just under the surface of our favorite planet?
The important thing to note here is that all the scientists claim this is all very very very safe, and the Earth is like for 100% sure not going to be demolecularized or anything. They further claim that all these particles are flying through space all the time, and in fact flying through the planet earth all the time, because matter is of course made up almost entirely of empty space. (That much we do remember, right?) The only slight difference is that these particular micro black holes are going to be moving much slower, sort of drifting through our planet in fact. But really, no worries.
Brian Cox, an experimental physicist working at the collider, says, “there are layer after layer after layer of tests and some of them are observational and some of them are theoretical and it turns out that it’s utter nonsense.” Then again, he elsewhere says, “it’s truly a leap into the unknown.”