Monday, December 08, 2008

Not the End of the World as We Know It (I Still Feel Fine Though)

The fact that you're reading this sentence proves the world hasn't ended. That may sound obvious, but only a few months ago some scientists declared such a dire catastrophe was right around the corner. Doomsayers said that when the Large Hadron Collider switched on, it would create black holes that could engulf the Earth. When the LHC first started up in September, it was clear that the end of the world was not nigh. Unfortunately before scientists could really begin probing the mysteries of the universe, the enormous particle accelerator broke down.

Investigators into the September accident issued their final report on Friday, identifying exactly what went awry and how to fix it. It turns out that an unexpected buildup of helium gas damaged 53 of the accelerator's 1200 massive electromagnets. The report also recommended a better early warning system to prevent future accidents like this one. Unfortunately it will cost over $20 million to fix and remain out of commission until at least June.

The LHC uses these magnets to fire subatomic protons at nearly the speed of light around its 17-mile-long track. When the energetic protons collide with each other they reproduce on a very small scale the conditions of the universe moments after its creation in the Big Bang. These collisions should generate a variety of new elementary particles, hopefully including the elusive Higgs-Boson. Sometimes known as the "God Particle," the much sought after Higgs-Boson is thought to be responsible for giving all matter its mass, even though it has not yet been directly observed.

Fears about world devouring black holes are massively misplaced, literally. Any microscopic black holes created in the accelerator won't have enough mass to consume a speck of dirt, much less planet Earth. Plus they're so small they would evaporate out of existence immediately after being created. Planet destroying black holes, like the one at the center of our galaxy, are only powerful because they have the mass of a star much bigger than our sun compacted into a space smaller than an atom. The LHC won't be playing around with anything remotely that big so when it starts up again come summer, the world can still sleep soundly.

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