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Particle Accelerators and Parallel Universes

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The Times online reported recently
that a data communications grid built to transfer data from the world's
largest particle accelerator may be able to function as an alternate
Internet, with speeds about 10,000 times faster than an average
broadband connection. This network – referred to in the article simply
as “the grid” – was built with modern fiber optic technology and
currently has 55,000 servers connecting the
CERN laboratory in Geneva,
Switzerland with eleven locations internationally. The grid was built
to house the data coming from
CERN's newest project: the world's
largest particle accelerator. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is
designed to study the inner workings of matter and perhaps even
discover the elusive Higgs Boson particle. Internet history buffs
may recall that Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989
while researching at CERN.

Although this new, cutting edge grid will most likely not be available
for public use, it may eventually be tapped into by telecom
corporations and government agencies. Currently the grid is being used
for academic research, and according to the Times article, it has already
been used to calculate potential chemicals for a malaria drug,
analyzing 140 million compounds — a data computing task that would have
taken 420 years using standard Internet-linked computers. Potential
benefits of an accelerated communications network of this magnitude
might include more widely accessible video conferencing (and some are
speculating holographic conferencing as well), online games with
hundreds of thousands of players connected together simultaneously, and
the ability to download a full length movie file in less than three seconds.

While these possibilities of rapid information exchange and scientific
discovery are no doubt astounding, and could radically change the world
we live in, there are possible dangers as well. In March, former nuclear
safety officer Walter Wagner and another critic, Luis Sancho, filed a
suit against the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermilab, the National
Science Foundation, and CERN in an effort to stall the LHC project (currently scheduled to be activated by the end of summer) to
allow for more research about safety concerns. The suit also asks for a
full environmental review of the project by the U.S. Government,
particularly in regards to certain doomsday scenarios which Wagner and
other critics claim are possible. According to critics of the CERN
project, possible scenarios involving the impact of the Large Hadron
Collider on the natural environment might be immensely catastrophic and
extremely bizarre, and could potentially even alter the very fabric of
our reality.

One of their concerns is that the mini-black holes generated by this
machine could eventually coalesce into a larger black hole that would
then begin absorbing matter. Another possibility is that new
combinations of quarks could come into existence, creating a stable,
negatively-charged strangelet which could turn everything it touches
into strangelets as well – plunging us into a parallel universe of
stable, negatively-charged strangelets. Yet another theory is that high-energy collisions in the LHC could result in massive particles that
only have one magnetic pole, rather than the typical north-south pole
magnetism with which we are familiar. Critics worry that such particles
could start a huge chain reaction, converting atoms into different
forms of matter.

Even contemplating the possibility of such occurrences is a bizarre
undertaking. While scientists have claimed that the CERN particle
accelerator project is safe, no one is able to guarantee the results of
sub-atomic particle experiments that have never been performed. A 2003
CERN report called “Study of Potentially Dangerous Events During Heavy-Ion Collisions at the LHC”
assessed some of these dangers and found no basis for a threat. Yet
Wagner contends that more research is required before the project
should move forward.

While these hypothetical fears may seem laughable, this is nonetheless
a somber situation that we face: living in a world with technologies
now so advanced that they may be capable of erasing our reality in the
blink of an eye. Such man-made doomsday scenarios are not limited to
concerns about the LHC project either. Similar grim concerns have been
voiced in recent years about the potential catastrophes of out of control nanotech, and the ominous specter of nuclear winter which still
lingers from the days of the Cold war. While it seems that such world-devastation scenarios are becoming increasingly plausible, perhaps one
of the most pressing questions facing the 21st century scientist, and
the public at large, is: Even though we know we can… should we?

 

Tristan Gulliford is a writer, dreamer, and aspiring myth-keeper
who makes electronic music under the name "Dreamcode". He is currently
attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"The Large Hadron Collider" image by Image Editor on Flickr used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.

 

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