Remember the atomic bomb? Remember how the very notion of splitting atoms and harnessing that energy attracted top scientists from around the world? Remember how once they thought they figured out how to do it there was a small yet significant chance that it would set off a chain reaction that may have destroyed the world? Remember how they decided it was a worthwhile risk? Well, we’re back. And I have to admit, I’m not sure how I feel. The science fiction geek in me is all aflutter as we dive head-first into what could easily lead us into a whole new age. Or destroy us in one fell swoop.
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research based in Geneva, is about to finally test out a $4 billion project that’s been under construction since 2003. The United States and Japan are the largest financial contributors to the project, but there are at least 18 other European member states financially involved and the experiment has attracted researchers of 80 different nationalities.
The basic idea behind this? To get a closer look at what matter is made up of. How do we go about doing this? Well, the idea is to smash together atoms at such high speeds that it essentially recreates a mini Big Bang, the theory that a colossal explosion created the universe.
So what could go wrong? There’s the rub. There are several groups and theorists that suggest, in moving forward with this event, there is the possibility that we could create micro black holes, subatomic versions of collapsed stars wherein the gravitation field is so strong that not even light can escape its pull. Black holes exist in our universe, but recreating them here on Earth, well, that could cause some rather unpleasant problems.
So how is this done? According to an article released by the associated press:
The first beams of protons will be fired around the 17-mile tunnel to test the controlling strength of the world’s largest superconducting magnets. It will still be about a month before beams traveling in opposite directions are brought together in collisions…
The CERN collider is designed to push the proton beam close to the speed of light, whizzing 11,000 times a second around the tunnel 150 to 500 feet under the bucolic countryside on the French-Swiss border.
Once the beam is successfully fired counterclockwise, a clockwise test will follow. Then the scientists will aim the beams at each other so that protons collide, shattering into fragments and releasing energy under the gaze of detectors filling cathedral-sized caverns at points along the tunnel…
Scientists started colliding subatomic particles decades ago. As the machines grew more powerful, the experiments revealed that protons and neutrons — previously thought to be the smallest components of an atom — were made of still smaller quarks and gluons.
According to a team working on one of the four major installations in the tunnel:
We create mini Big Bangs by bumping two nuclei into each other. This releases an enormous amount of energy that liberates thousands of quarks and gluons normally imprisoned inside the nucleus. Quarks and gluons then form a kind of thick soup that we call the quark-gluon plasma.
The soup cools quickly and the quarks and gluons stick together to form protons and neutrons, the building blocks of matter.
That will enable scientists to look for still missing pieces to the puzzle — or lead to the formulation of a new theory on the makeup of matter.
So after nearly 6 years of construction, CERN comes online this Wednesday. So sit back and enjoy. And look at the bright side: maybe we’ll never have to find out what it might be like to have Sarah Palin as Vice President.
For the record, CERN dismisses any risk of this experiment creating micro black holes.