The European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN), which attained literary fame courtesy of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons), has repaired its new super toy that broke down a little over a year ago. Later today, all things going well, the button will be pushed to start it up again.
The Large Hadron Collider is twenty-seven kilometers in diameter (approximately seventeen miles) and just happens to be located under me. Or maybe I should say I live on top of it. I live close to Geneva in Switzerland, and this super collider sits one hundred and seventy-five meters below ground on the western edge of France and the eastern edge of Switzerland. (Map here) I trust you get the idea here. It is big. In fact, very, very big.
Its prime function is to make extremely little things go bang. In particular, to make little atoms go bang. By crashing them together from opposite directions at the speed of light. Now, I don’t want to be a LHC party pooper, but this does not sound such a good idea to me. Visions of mushroom clouds and very loud explosions come to mind rather quickly at the mention of atoms, protons, neutrons and alike exploding. Now I am definitely more a grammarian than a scientist, so these three words, atom, proton and neutron are adjectives that rather predictably go before the noun bomb.
However, everything is under control. I checked the LHC website for this reassurance.
CERN define their goal as:
LHC – the aim of the exercise:
“To smash protons moving at 99.999999% of the speed of light into each other and so recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang. The LHC experiments try and work out what happened.”
Now, I don’t want to be a pessimist here, but I get a weird feeling that making atoms go bang can be just a little bit dangerous. My memories of a toy chemical set I received for my sixth birthday were proof that things can go bang rather easily and do a lot of damage to a Laminex kitchen table.
The other small worry I have is that if CERN wants to, recreate the conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang, it has the potential to be a far bigger explosion that my first attempts at making gun powder in the kitchen. The thought of atoms, colliding and exploding, going bang and creating heat one hundred thousand times hotter than the sun has me ever so slightly conCERNed. The fact that this is going to happen right under my feet takes my conCERN level up just a fraction. Reading about the wonders of the LHC makes one gasp at the sheer size and magnitude of this project. The website is also very reassuring about the safety of the LHC. So I have nothing to worry about. It is perfectly safe. Right?
The one small comfort I do have, is that if anything does go horribly wrong, I won’t know a thing about it. I’ll be transformed into cosmic dust in a millisecond along with anyone who is within a light year of me at that moment. Not that I am conCERNed at all. I am 99.999999% convinced that it is all very safe indeed.