The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) began operations on the 10th September amidst media frenzy. It grabbed the public imagination, as fears were raised that the experiments being carried out were so dangerous that they could bring about the end of the world. Obviously, the world has not ended yet, so what was all the fuss about?
The LHC is the product of an international project based at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), in which 111 countries (excluding Ireland) are participating. The LHC itself is the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator complex, running for 27km in a circular tunnel under the Jura Mountains at the Swiss/French border. It is designed to collide opposing beams of protons to probe the very nature of matter itself, recreating the conditions that existed mere billionths of a second after the birth of the universe. This is done by firing two separate particle beams around the tunnel and colliding them, then using detectors to record the particles that are scattered in all directions.
The LHC Safety Assessment Group, a group of independent scientists, reported in 2003 that “there is no basis for any concievable threat.”
The Higgs boson (an elusive particle also sometimes referred to as the “God particle”,) which gives everything in the cosmos its mass, is one of the particles that scientists are hoping to detect and record using the LHC. It is currently hypothetical, but it is predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics. In theory, every other particle in the universe gets its mass from interacting with an all-pervading field caused by Higgs bosons. Experimental observation of this particle will hopefully explain how massless elementary particles can cause matter to have mass – if it exists, it is an essential component of the material world. If the LHC confirms the existence of the Higgs boson, the Standard Model theory could unify everything in the physical world except gravity.
However, most of the attention surrounding the LHC has focused on the safety concerns of several scientists, which were eagerly picked up by the media worldwide. More than one newspaper carried a sensationalist headline along the lines of “If you’re reading this, then the world hasn’t ended!” Otto E. Rössler, a German biochemist, has been one of the experiment’s strongest critics, drawing attention to the possibility of creating micro black holes with assumed exponential growth. He calculated that nothing will happen for at least four years, when two light rays will come out of opposite sides of the Earth due to the formation of a quasar. He said this quasar will destroy the Earth from the inside, causing disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes, changing the climate completely and eventually wiping out life.
The creation of hypothetical particles called strangelets has been another concern. The contact of a strangelet with a lump of ordinary matter such as the Earth would convert the ordinary matter to ‘strange matter’ – hypothetically, this could convert the Earth into a hot, inert lump of strange matter.
The media portrayal of the LHC experiments has been branded as irresponsible and sensationalist by psychologists
Despite these concerns, the overwhelming response by scientists has been that there is no danger to the Earth by the LHC experiments; rather, it will enhance our understanding of the universe and its components. The LHC Safety Assessment Group (LSAG), a group of independent scientists, reported in 2003 that “there is no basis for any conceivable threat.” One of the most regularly repeated arguments against the doomsday predictions was that collisions of energies higher than those of the LHC have been happening naturally for billions of years – ultra-high-energy cosmic rays impact the Earth’s atmosphere all the time with no apparent hazardous effects. It has also been noted that even if micro black holes were created they would not be able to accumulate matter in a manner that would pose a threat to the Earth, and they would quickly decay due to Hawking radiation. The creation of strangelets has been dismissed as far-fetched by most scientists – the LHC is less likely to produce these than other ion colliders already in operation with no ill effects.
The media portrayal of the LHC experiments has been branded as irresponsible and sensationalist by psychologists – especially since the death of a 16-year-old Indian girl, who killed herself after being distressed by the coverage on an Indian news channel. It is a minority of scientists who see the LHC as a danger; most scientists see this as an opportunity to tackle some of the most exciting and fundamental questions about our universe.