Did you own a toy race-car track as a child? Ever crash your model trains into one another just to see what happened? If you did, then congratulations, you already know some of the basic principles behind the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the 27-kilometer tunnel buried in the Swiss countryside exists to smash particle beams into each other at velocities approaching the speed of light. The idea is to use the resulting data to better understand the structure and origins of the universe. We're talking heavy questions and even heavier answers. Perhaps it's understandable that some critics, conspiracy theorists, crackpots and (alleged) time travelers might fear something more substantial than the Higgs boson particle. In this article, we'll run through some of the more popular misconceptions about the LHC and how little you have to fear about it causing the end of the world as we know it.
5. CERN Is Making an Antimatter Bomb
The Dan Brown detective novel (and movie adaptation) "Angels and Demons" centers on a plot to steal an antimatter bomb from CERN and blow up the Vatican with it. While the blockbuster delivered its share of action and intrigue, it fell short on facts. Two of the film's biggest mistakes revolved around antimatter's potential use as both an energy source and a weapon. Yes, when an antimatter particle comes in contact with normal matter, the two particles destroy each other and release energy. But CERN is quick to point out that the energy payoff simply isn't there. In fact, the transaction is so inefficient that scientists only get a tenth of a billionth of their invested energy back when an antimatter particle meets its matter counterpart. As for developing an antimatter bomb, the same principles apply. CERN points out that, at current production rates, it would take billions of years for the organization to produce enough antimatter to generate an explosion equal to an atomic blast.
4. Fun-sized Black Holes
Some concepts don't become tamer when you tack a "micro-" or a "mini-" prefix in front of them. For example, a mini-stroke is still an excellent reason to visit the hospital, and you'd certainly be ill advised to question the power of a minigun. So when CERN scientists mention that they might create microscopic black holes in the midst of their particle smashing, it's easy to understand some of the ensuing panic. Based on Einstein's theory of relativity, a few speculative theories lend a sheen of possibility to micro-black hole creation. The good news is that these theories also predict the micro-black holes would disintegrate immediately. If these black hole welterweights did hang around a little longer, it would take billions of years to consume the mass of a tiny grain of sand. That means no reducing the European countryside to a singularity and certainly no destroying the planet "Star Trek" style.
3. Attack of the Strangelets
Read enough space publications and your perception of the universe changes pretty fast. Once you get beyond the absurd vastness of the cosmos, you encounter such mind-rending notions as black holes, antimatter and dark matter. After you've swallowed the notion of a gigantic star collapsing into something smaller than a pinhead, it's easy to get bowled over by the idea of universe-destroying strangelets. Strange matter is presumed to be 10 million times denser than lead and was birthed during the Big Bang from the hearts of dense stars. The fear, which originated with the start-up of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in 2000, is that the LHC will inadvertently produce strangelets -- tiny particles of strange matter -- and that these particles will swiftly convert surrounding normal matter into even more strange matter. It only takes a thousand-millionth of a second for the chain reaction to convert the entire planet. Strangelets, however, are purely speculative, and haven't surfaced in over eight years of RHIC operation. CERN says that the RHIC was far more likely to produce the theoretical matter than the LHC, so there's really no chance of it consuming the planet.
2. Time Travelers Hate It
In "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," the titular slacker duo wields time travel with the logic of a 12-year-old. When Bill and Ted need a cell key to bust a few historical figures out of a modern California jail, they simply make a mental note for their future selves to travel back in time and plant the key where they can find it. While the 1989 buddy comedy is pretty much the antithesis of hard science fiction, its view of time-travel logic is shockingly similar to a 2009 theory regarding the LHC. Danish string theory pioneer Holger Bech Nielsen and Japanese physicist Masao Ninomiya, in a series of posted physics articles, laid out their theory that the Higgs boson particle is so abhorrent to nature that its future creation will send a ripple back through time to keep it from being made. Naturally, this theory summons images of T-800s, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hermione Granger all galloping back through time to prevent future disasters, but not everyone is busy cracking jokes and reminiscing about time-travel movies. The two scientists aren't even talking about shadowy strangers from the future, but merely "something" looping back through the fourth dimension. Imagine a poorly designed bomb that, upon creation, destroys half the bomb factory. Now expand that example out from the confines of linear time.
1. Gateway to Hell
Black holes, antimatter explosions and even strangelets all originate from scientific fact and theory (albeit with a bit of imagination thrown in). Forget all that for the moment and consider the "Satan's Stargate" theory, proposed by Chris Constantine, better known on the Internet as YouTube user gorilla199. Constantine charges that the LHC exists "to disrupt a hole in the Van Allen belt that surrounds the Earth" and "to allow the return of the Annunaki from the planet Nibiru in order that they can come here, corrupt the rest of the Earth and do battle with God at Armageddon." There's also some stuff in there about freemasonry, cosmic rays and the Old Testament offspring of humans and fallen angels. According to BBC News, Constantine received a suspended sentence for DVD pirating after his defense attorney charged that Constantine suffered from a serious psychiatric condition. The Antichrist could not be reached for comment.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is currently on the long road to re-start, but for physicists poring over the huge wealth of data stored from countless trillions of particle collisions already carried out by the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the work never paused.
And this week, at the LHC Physics meeting in New York City, researchers who are currently analyzing data from one of the LHC’s seven detectors announced an intriguing finding. As reported by Symmetry Magazine, the finding — which isn’t quite a discovery (yet) — focuses on the production of electrons, muons and taus in the post-collision soup of particles that are produced inside the LHCb detector.
Messing with the Standard Model
In a nutshell, these three types of subatomic particle — all known as “leptons” — should be produced in equal numbers as decay products after the two counter-rotating ‘beams’ of protons inside the LHC’s superconducting electromagnets collide with one another. The Standard Model predicts this and, so far, experiments have yet to prove otherwise.
“The Standard Model doesn’t distinguish between muons and electrons in these decays,” said particle physicist Tom Blake, a Royal Society University Research Fellow. “As far as our equations are concerned, they are the same particle, so we should see them produced in near equal amounts.”
The Standard Model is the all-encompassing theory of quantum mechanics and has been formulated over decades of theory and experimentation. It is a reliable “universal recipe book” of sorts that can predict what types of particle will be generated inside the LHC’s detectors. But there are some holes in the Standard Model — most notably the fact that gravity doesn’t ‘fit’; we don’t know what dark matter is; and why the Universe is mostly matter (and not antimatter).
In an effort to possibly detect physics beyond the Standard Model (i.e. ‘new’ physics that could explain some of the Standard Model’s shortcomings), physicists are looking closely at the data spewing from the LHC in the hope of seeing patterns that cannot be explained using our current understanding of physics theory.
Although it is just a hint, LHCb physicists are baffled as to why the production of electrons, muons and taus should be defying Standard Model predictions. According to decay measurements, electrons were produced 25 percent more often than muons. If the Standard Model were a cake recipe, it would be like throwing all the ingredients for a chocolate cake into a bowl, baking it and then getting a vanilla cake out of the oven. Obviously there’s something not quite right with the cake recipe.
In 2013, Discovery News reported on a related LHCb finding that there is a discrepancy in the decays of B-mesons. B-mesons, which are hadrons composed of a quark and anti-quark, decay in a very specific way and physicists noticed a non-random pattern in the angular distribution of decay products that was not predicted by the Standard Model. Once again, the recipe appears to be slightly askew.
Could there be some commonality between these two findings? Last year, LHCb physicists suggested that supersymmetry may have a part to play in the B-meson results and the same could be said for the lepton decay products in this latest work.
“If we continue to see this discrepancy, it could be evidence of a new particle—like a heavier cousin of the Z boson-interfering with the muon production,” said co-investigator Michel De Cian, postdoc at the University of Heidelberg.
Supersymmetry (a.k.a. SUSY) is a theory beyond the Standard Model that predicts the existence of more massive “superpartner” particles for all normal particles — in this case a Z boson “superpartner” could be the source of the interference, throttling muon production.