On Friday, thousands of scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) -- where Tim Berners-Lee and a group of his students invented the World Wide Web -- embarked on their second attempt in 14 months to invent, or re-invent, something almost as significant: the universe.
Yes, at the heart of history's largest and most expensive experiment -- at over $7 billion -- is the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. (That's hadron with the d before the r, kids, not vice versa.) The 27 kilometer (17 mi.) long particle accelerator is buried over 150 meters underground near the French-Swiss border.
On September 10, 2008, over two thousand physicists who collaborated to varying degrees in the completion of the project watched as the first attempt to circulate a beam of protons in the LHC was successfully carried out. Nine days later, however, a glitch in the electrical connection between two of the over 9000 superconducting magnets used to guide the protons on their path resulted in a massive helium leak, causing the apparatus to lose its supercool temperature of -271 degrees Celsius (making it one of the coldest places in the universe), and effectively shutting it down.
This glitch was costly, but far from the only curse that has plagued the LHC in the last 14 months. In early October, a CERN physicist was arrested for suspected links to Al Qaeda. On November 3, a bit of baguette, likely dropped by a bird on an electrical substation above the machine, choked off part of the machine's power supply, causing it to overheat, and -- in strict theoretical physics jargon -- totally freaked out the scientists.
The terrorist arrest and the baguette fiasco were both subsequently resolved, and as of last week, the LHC is back in action. If all goes according to plan, high energy collisions between subatomic particles will finally be produced in the next few months and years to re-create and study the conditions that existed at the time of the Big Bang and right afterwards.
This means venturing into the interface between energy and matter and watching how subatomic particles gained mass as the universe cooled. It means potentially witnessing what led to the creation of time. It means possibly discovering new spatial dimensions that we've never seen before.
It means actually observing the Higgs boson, the elusive little thing that could help us get closer to the Grand Unified Theory -- the "theory of everything" -- that Albert Einstein died trying to find. Also called the God particle, the Higgs boson is almost like a subatomic stem cell -- a large, unstable primordial particle that existed for a mere fraction of a second after the Big Bang before breaking down into other smaller subatomic particles, including those we see today. Brilliant, right?
Well, not if you talk to nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner. Wagner is one of a few passionate LHC critics who, with a bunch of his worried fellow citizens, brought forth a lawsuit against CERN and others working on the project last year in an attempt to get them to delay the launch of the LHC until its safety had been adequately assessed. He even started an organization in protest against the LHC.
And as of Friday, November 20, another group, very cleverly called conCERNed International, has filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, protesting the LHC's imminent restart.
So why are these critics so scared of colliding hadrons?
For one, they think that the experiment would lead to the creation of microscopic black holes, which have a nagging habit of showing up every time some idiot creates a universe somewhere. These tiny black holes would potentially get caught up in Earth's gravitational pull, unable to escape it, causing them to coalesce and become a much bigger black hole that swallows up all existing matter -- a cosmic killjoy that looks a little like this:
Other concerns include the creation of "strangelets" -- little things created when quarks, which make up protons and neutrons, are rearranged and remixed to make a certain type of negatively charged particle that will go around turning everything it touches into a negatively charged strangelet like itself. Kind of like a subatomic Dracula. We all know people like that at work.
So don't bother paying your credit card bill for the next few months. In fact, max it out.
The brains at CERN have countered these concerns in the past in a public report and said:
"Nature has already generated on Earth as many collisions as about a million LHC experiments -- and the planet still exists ... Astronomers observe an enormous number of larger astronomical bodies throughout the universe, all of which are also struck by cosmic rays. The universe as a whole conducts more than 10 million LHC-like experiments per second. The possibility of any dangerous consequences contradicts what astronomers see -- stars and galaxies still exist."
Still, the decision is harrowing. Do I go all out and live it up in every way I want, assuming that there will be no consequences because of an impending Doomsday? What if I wake up the day after and find out everything's fine -- except for the hordes of people looking to kick my ass? Well, if this new Hadron hype turns out to be anything like that Y2K panicfest in 1999, I'm leaving the fucking country.
Still, in its most favored scenario, we'll know a little more about how everything came to be, and whether, as Einstein said, God really played dice with the universe.
That is, of course, unless the Higgs boson travels back in time to prevent its own existence. Yes, you read that right. Bear with me: this is actually a serious proposition put forward by Holger Bech Nielsen, a fairly established physicist at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, who believes that the LHC mishaps aren't exactly coincidental. "You could explain it by saying that God rather hates Higgs particles and attempts to avoid them," he says. Um, okay.
"Bollocks!" responds Brian Cox, who works on the ATLAS project at the LHC, talking about Nielsen's theory on a recent episode of The Colbert Report. He has told The Times that if time travelers from the future did successfully come back here and achieve their anti-LHC motives, he would refer us to an article supporting Nielsen "that I wrote in 2025."
If the doomsayers are right, then in the worst case scenario, we'll be floating around in a sea of Higgs bosons watching those guys from the Heaven's Gate cult glide through the universe on that Hale-Bopp comet, laughing at us. If I don't make it, please know that my large hadron was always hyperdense for your black hole.
See you all in a parallel universe.