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September 29, 2008 | by  | in News |
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Oh no! Is that a black hole on the horizon?!

Unless you’ve been hanging out with Ariel and Sebastian under the sea for the last few weeks, you would have heard about our impending doom: how we’re all going to get swallowed up by a black hole caused by mad scientists smashing sub-atomic particles together.

The internet’s gone a bit mental over the prospect of the end of the world. If you haven’t already done so, search the “CERN black hole” or “LHC black hole” on YouTube for animations and prophecies of the world being swallowed up. My favourite title is ‘How the Doomsday Machine Works (LHC – CERN) Black Hole Maker’ – makes you wonder how the scientists involved ever got ethics-board consent for that one. “Oh don’t worry, Doomsday Machine’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s more of a device.” But it’s not just the usual internet madness over the Large Hadron Collider – scientists involved in the project have reported getting phonecalls from hysterical members of the public begging them not to kill us all.

So, what is the Large Hadron Collider, and why are people getting getting their knickers in knots that’d make Boy Scouts jealous over it?

The Large Hadron Collider is a particle-accelerator, and the largest one made to date. Particle-accelerators do pretty much what the name implies: propel sub-atomic particles at high speeds. Particle accelerators have been around for decades, and are not as scary as they sound. Cathode ray tube televisions and computers could be described as particle accelerators: cathode ray tubes work using tubes of electron beams.

The Large Hadron Collider speeds streams of protons through a 27 kilometre underground tunnel at up to 99.999999% of the speed of light – that’s 11,000 times round the tunnel per second – and smashes them together, recreating the conditions immediately following the Big Bang. The Large Hadron Collider was first switched on on 10 September this year, and the first high-energy proton collisions are scheduled for late November.

So why would we want to smash protons together? The LHC’s ‘outreach’ web-page lists research into dark energy, dark matter, extra dimensions, the Higgs boson, and supersymmetry as applications of the LHC.

As a quick description of just one of these research areas, most of us are content to understand the world as composed, at its smallest constituent parts, of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Physicists go way smaller than that. The Higgs boson is an elementary (indivisible) particle, which is theorised to give mass to all elementary particles (including itself), which in turn gives mass to all matter. The Higgs boson hasn’t been observed yet – the only elementary particle of current theory that hasn’t been – but scientists hope the LHC will change all that.

But, back to the black holes. Black holes usually form when the gravity of a dead star causes it to collapse, compressing its mass together. Black holes have such strong gravitational fields that nothing that falls past their event horizons can escape – not even light.

Some models predict that the collisions of the Large Hadron Collider could create black holes at a rate of one per day to one per second – with 5000 times the mass of a proton, at a thousandth of the size of a proton or smaller.

But, according to the work of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, these baby black holes, which emit radiation, would lose more mass than they gain by sucking matter in, and would evaporate before we even noticed their existence: within a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, before they suck in any noticeable amount of matter. Even if they didn’t evaporate, the rate at which they gobble up matter would be so slow that it would take a year to destroy 100 protons. Which means it’d take longer than the history of the universe to destroy just a milligram of matter.

Besides which, as the LHC scientists point out in safety reports and to the media, the cosmic rays from the sun that’ve bombarded the Earth since before humanity’s appearance, let alone the construction of the LHC, are powerful enough to create baby black holes, and we haven’t been destroyed by said black holes yet.

But, if despite all assurances, you’re still convinced that the threat of annihilation is real and the end is nigh, you definitely shouldn’t go to this site:

Read more! Here are some rad links:

I read the news today oh, boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

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