Monday, March 31, 2008

Scientific Frontiers

The Hadron Collider is the largest collaborative scientific effort in history. It involves more than 2000 scientists from 34 countries as well as hundreds of universities and laboratories. It has taken 14 years to build at a cost of $8 billion and is scheduled to begin serious research work later this year.

And that work is mindboggling. The Collider seeks to accomplish nothing less than giving us a view of what the universe was like about one trillionth of a second after the Big Bang when the 4 fundamental forces in the universe – electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravitation – first split apart. By sending particle beams in opposite directions along a 17 mile underground circular track and accelerating them to near light speed while directing the particles with superconducting magnets to points where they are likely to collide, scientists hope to unravel some of the basic mysteries of the universe. Dark matter, extra dimensions, the nature of gravity, perhaps the fate of the universe itself could be revealed by these collisions and the subatomic particles they leave behind.

That is all good, right? Well, some aren't 100% convinced that we know what will happen. The whole story is given here, but this is a sample of what some worry about. The risk is probably small that the earth will be consumed, but......

" the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.” Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Although it sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.

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