Stealing fire from heaven. The most important physics experiment in the history of, well, all of history, is slated to take place over the late winter of 2009 and the first few months of 2010. This is when the CERN particle collider ramps up to full speed and starts crashing atomic particles into one another at dazzling rates of acceleration, seeking to identify the mass of the so-called ‘God particle’—itself the source of all mass in the universe. The God particle is otherwise called the Higgs boson particle, and the Higgs boson particle can also be thought of as a field. Physicists are looking to confirm the Higgs boson’s existence, and trying to get exact measurements of it. Future directions in science and technology will hinge on what they discover, or fail to discover.
I’m not a scientist, but in reading about the CERN Large Hadron Collider, and the energies that it is scheduled to generate in some of its experiments (10 billion times the heat at the core of the sun!!!), isn’t it just a teensy-weensy bit possible that the physicists know not what they’re about to do? Stephen Hawking—among other very, very smart physicists—has assured the public that the tiny black holes (!!!) that their experiments will generate will quickly dissipate, and there will be no catastrophic effects from clashing particles together at such extraordinary energies. But weren’t there a lot of very smart scientists in the early 1980s saying that the risk of a space shuttle launch accident was vanishingly small—and in fact, the tenth launch saw the disintegration of a shuttle, right? And this disintegration was accompanied with the infamous words: “Go with throttle up.”
So my question is this: If scientists are not able to predict accurately the probabilities of a space shuttle launch—a device for which they have detailed knowledge—how can we be so sure that scientists can estimate accurately the dangers of generating black holes, even very miniscule ones? Black holes, afterall, are things that scientists almost certainly know less about than a space shuttle, isn’t that correct? I mean, what if Stephen Hawking, in one of his equations, like, forgot to carry the fricken’ 4? “Oops. Maybe those black holes don’t dissipate afterall! Never mind!” But then it will be too late. Might the experiments that CERN begins this winter be another “Go with throttle up” moment, but with global implications?
And the energies being generated (again, a billion times hotter than the core of the sun) are akin to what the universe saw a billionth of a second after the Big Bang started (replicating that high energy state is what makes scientists think that the Higgs boson will show up in their experiments). So what makes us think that generating Higgs bosons (the quantum particle-fields that created the universe’s mass in the first place) won’t do some weird and unpredictable stuff? Isn’t this like doing Einstein’s equation backwards? (Instead of mass split to release energy, high energies are being collided to detect the mass of a Higgs boson.) Going the Einstein way that we’re familiar with makes a big boom. What makes scientists think that going in the reverse direction won’t make for a big collapse? Wasn’t it Hillary Clinton who said, “You don’t know how far a frog will jump until you poke it”?
And Hillary nearly won her campaign and caught Barack in the stretch, didn’t she? And isn’t the whole point of a scientific experiment to not just confirm what you think you know, but to be broadsided by something surprising? A scientific experiment is a question you ask of the universe, and the universe returns an answer. So what if the answer is: “You just started a black hole that will eventually eat your solar system”? What makes physicists so cocksure that the universe will only return an answer that resides within their already expected range of parameters? I’m not trying to be antiscientific, nor alarmist. Nor am I a Luddite. I’m just asking.
My wife likened the experiment to some guy in a lab who says: “I’ve got a great idea! Let’s play with fire! Let’s dig up body parts from the cemetary, assemble them, and make a man!” And Mary Shelley, if you’ll recall, subtitled her novel, Frankenstein, “The Modern Prometheus.” Still, this physicist’s calm explanation of what will happen at CERN, and his reassurances, help:
But I still have questions. The physicist in the video, for example, says that these tiny black holes may not even exist, but if they do, they’ll dissipate. But how does he know this? Should we just take his word? Is the dissipation something predicted by a particular theoretical model, and are there competing models that suggest that these little black holes don’t disintegrate? And what, exactly, does he mean to imply by saying that “it’s kind of like” the universe has already conducted the experiment many times, and is already suffused with particles that are moving at higher velocities than those that will be hurling about the track at CERN? This needs a clearer explication. Are these high energy particles in nature colliding with one another, or just passing by one another? Are they attractive or repellent to one another? If they do collide, how often do they collide, and how do we know it? What exactly does he mean by “kind of like”? Is it the exact same thing, or not? Or is it something merely analogous? What if he is making an analogy that is actually misleading?
Again, as a lay person, I’m just asking. Is it a dumb question to ask whether this particular scientific emperor has clothes—and whether he’s about to inadvertently fry them off of the rest of us?