The Large Hadron Collider: Fiction vs. Fact

The Five Most Common Fears

by Mark Hughes

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The world's most expensive and sophisticated science experiment — the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) —was activated for the first time in September 2008. Prior to its activation, some people voiced concern that it would destroy the world. Numerous safety reports have come to the conclusion that the device is perfectly safe. The latest report from the Safety Assessment Group writes, “Nature has already conducted the equivalent of about a hundred thousand LHC experimental programs on Earth—and the planet still exists.” This has not stopped some critics from sending death threats to the scientists involved with the LHC, however.

Below are the five most common fears about the LHC and reasons for why you should not be worried.

Fear One: Magnetic monopoles, hypothetical particles with a single magnetic charge
Fiction The LHC will produce magnetic monopoles that will cause protons to decay.
Fact The theories that magnetic monopoles can destroy protons are the same theories that say such monopoles would be too heavy for the LHC to create. If magnetic monopoles were lighter, then the LHC and the Earth’s atmosphere would be able to make them, but since this hasn’t occurred in nature there is no way it can be caused by the LHC.

Fear Two: Cosmic rays, particles originating in outer space made of mostly protons, with smaller amounts of helium nuclei and electrons (about 9% and 1%, respectively) mixed in
Fiction Cosmic rays created in a laboratory could produce microscopic black holes.
Fact Nature creates cosmic rays all the time, and these rays collide with any stellar body they encounter. Naturally occurring cosmic rays are often accelerated to energies far beyond the capabilities of the LHC. If they can create microscopic black holes, then they are doing so all the time in nature. The fact that no astronomical body has been consumed by a hungry microscopic black hole adds further weight to such an occurrence never happening due to the LHC.

Fear Three: Microscopic black holes
Fiction When protons begin colliding in the LHC, microscopic black holes could be created and exist long enough to become lodged in Earth’s gravity well. This could give the black hole the time and energy it would need to grow in size while consuming the planet from the inside out.
Fact Real black holes are produced when a star collapses on itself. This collapse concentrates a very large amount of matter into an extremely small space. Since naturally occurring cosmic rays collide all the time with Earth’s atmosphere and no black holes have ever been created—shown by the fact that we are still here—it is nearly impossible for such an anomaly to be produced by the LHC.

Fear Four: Strangelets, hypothetical “strange matter” containing equal numbers of particles called quarks
Fiction The fear is that the LHC has enough energy to form strangelets whose properties would immediately begin changing ordinary matter into “strange matter.”
Fact Another collider, in operation since 2000, called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), has been searching for strangelets without success. Not once has it been able to detect or produce any “strange matter” particles. The LHC is more powerful than the RHIC, but that fact further reduces the chance the LHC could produce strangelets. As energy levels and temperatures increase, so does the inability of strangelets to maintain cohesion.

Fear Five: Vacuum Bubbles
Fiction The LHC could produce a vacuum bubble that could tip our unstable universe into a more stable state, fundamentally changing the physical laws of nature into a configuration in which life could not exist.
Fact If the more numerous and powerful collisions in nature have not produced universe-changing vacuum bubbles, than the less powerful LHC could hardly do so.

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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