The Collider

(Originally published on February 23rd, 2010) 

On February 20th, the Large Hadron Collider ramped up its output to three-and-a-half trillion electron-volts. That February 20th–despite what the skeptics had presumed–was not the day the world ended. No, the end of the world has not dawned upon us yet. But now we know that it will–and we know that it will come soon.

Skeptics and religious zealots aside, scientifically, February 20th was actually supposed to be rather uneventful. At three-and-a-half, the Collider operated at half its target energy, and the Higgs boson was unlikely to rear its coveted head. At seven–it was theorized–it should, but the Collider wasn’t ready for seven; that wouldn’t be happening until 2012. Unsurprisingly then, on February 21st, in the absence of any sensation to report, the headlines of some European newspapers (and Page 2 blurbs of others) focused on the questionable value of this very expensive scientific experiment–the most expensive experiment in human history, in fact–calling it “the World’s Greatest Waste of Money”.

The Collider’s computers pumped experimental data at a staggering rate of twenty gigabytes per day. CERN was kind enough to make the data available to the scientific community (or rather, to the tiny fraction of the community capable of consuming data that quickly) but there was a widespread understanding that results–if any–would take weeks to hunt down in the jungle of zeroes and ones.

Consequently, the revelation that came on February 25th startled absolutely everyone. All six detectors embedded in the accelerator’s hull reported several major anomalies. It seemed, based on CERN’s back-of-the-envelope analysis, that the space throughout the accelerator manifested pockets of non-relativistic properties. Particles twice as heavy as electrons have been detected. The electroweak and strong forces seemed to switch places. The events were short-lived and highly localized yet nobody knew what to make out of it.

The prevailing mood at CERN was one of bewilderment although there were obviously some who were elated–hoping for “easy” Nobel prizes or dreaming of proving the likes of Steven Weinberg wrong–and many more who were highly critical. Following a policy that could only come out of an institute desperate for wonders, the management board at CERN allowed an occasional anomaly so long as they were within the prevailing safety guardrails; the experiment was allowed to continue.

But the event that–in retrospect–was far greater in magnitude, occurred that day not in Europe, but at the Fermilab particle accelerator in Illinois. One of the particle colliders–similar in design to the Large Hadron Collider but capable of producing only much less spectacular collisions–reported spontaneous particle activity. Somehow particle collisions were being observed despite the fact that the accelerator had not been launched. Similar events at various accelerators throughout the globe were reported shortly afterwards, roughly in decreasing order of the accelerator’s sizes.

What was going on? One theory put forth somewhat hastily was that due to some unknown “particle tunelling” phenomenon all the major accelerators developed a kind of coupling, wherefore an event in one accelerator triggered a respective reaction in all the others. The theory likened this effect to that of quantum tunelling (a phenomenon known to the wide quasi-scientific New Scientist-and-the-like community as being the one making teleportation plausible) but on a large scale. The theory gathered widespread adoption despite being entirely unsubstantiated; it did not help explain how such a mechanism was possible, how–if at all–the Large Hadron Collider triggered it, and–most importantly–what the implications of the emergence of such a tunnel were.

The events of February 26th helped answer, at least partially, the latter questions. Concerned about possibly having caused an event that they didn’t fully understand, the scientists at CERN decided to turn off the Collider. A “controlled shutdown” was ordered: the energy would be slowly reduced to zero to allow teams all around the world to observe how the decrease in the Collider’s energy affected the coupled accelerators. The hope was that, if the Collider was the origin of the phenomenon, a shutdown would reduce the intensity of the individual tunnels. Most events in physics, after all, are reversible.

As the Collider’s power approached 95%, the Fermilab team (and then all the others) observed miniature black holes emerge at the sites of the anomalies. As an increasing number of short-lived, microscopic black holes popped up and as their size and life began to increase, it became clear to all that further power reductions would not be prudent. Evidently, following another theory put forth a few days later, the particle tunelling effect was not reversible; the only way to eliminate the tunnel is to let Nature create a black hole large enough to collapse the endpoints of a tunnel into one point. As there were by now dozens of tunnels between most major particle accelerators throughout the world, to stop the tunnel would have a disastrous consequence of witnessing the creation of a black hole large enough to consume all of Earth.

Here we are, barely seven days after the Large Hadron Collider started smashing electrons with never-before seen energies, equipped with the damned knowledge that the Collider is a ticking time-bomb and that the days of our planet are numbered. How much we have, nobody knows for sure. It all depends on how much longer we can keep the Collider running.

The world is watching the Collider–the tool of our demise–with suspended breath. If it breaks down or suddenly drops its power output, we are all going to vanish spectacularly, consumed by a black hole we will have accidentally created in the name of the elusive, impalpable knowledge. As anything man-made, it’s bound to break down. It’s just a matter of time.

February 20th was the day mankind doomed itself.