Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Largest Atom Smasher begins test run

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27 km long particle accelerator that straddles France and Switzerland just concluded its first test run. Nine thousand physicists were awaiting the result and then the champagne corks popped!

The collider aims to replicate the few moments after the Big Bang. The scientists aim to find the Higgs Boson a.k.a. the "God particle".

All these particle physics is gobbledygook to me, an ecologist, but this is what Wikipedia says about it

"is a hypothetical massive scalar elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics; it is the only Standard Model particle not yet observed. Experimental observation would elucidate how otherwise massless elementary particles nevertheless manage to construct mass in matter. More specifically, the Higgs boson would explain the difference between the massless photon and the relatively massive W and Z bosons. Elementary particle masses, and the differences between electromagnetism (caused by the photon) and the weak force (caused by the W and Z bosons), are critical to many aspects of the structure of microscopic (and hence macroscopic) matter; thus, if it exists, the Higgs boson is an integral and pervasive component of the material world"

Anyway, while particle physics is abstruse to the layperson (that includes me), the LHC became part of the public consciousness when some people claim that it can create a black hole (albeit, micro ones) that could swallow the Earth! These microblack holes are possible according to calculations based on the extended Standard Model. The microblack holes are believed to decay because of Hawking radiation.

While I would stand by the theories of particle physics (call this professional courtesy!), some people have legally challenged the LHC but the courts ruled in favour of the scientists. The challenge was first made by Otto E. Rössler , a German biochemist who proposed a theory that these microblack holes may accrete to form larger ones. When he published his theory, the physics journals rejected it. (BTW, a theory in science is something that explains a phenomenon in nature.)

Thus this age old conflict between science and what could be pseudoscience is again in the limelight, the stuff that Michael Shermer writes about. But for the benefit of readers who are not science professionals, there is always this chance that scientific theories are wrong. This is the falsifiability principle first proposed by Karl Popper in the mid 20th century. According to Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable.

So what the most of the physics community believes is likely true may be wrong. This is what science is all about.

But what seems to be unfalsifiable is the layperson's theory that these kind of experiments are a waste of money. If a black hole indeed had formed, then it was of the financial kind. It has sucked up a gadzillion Euros in its deadly gravitational pull. But hey! Europeanists like French Prez Nicholas Sarkozy say that this experiment is a major achievement for Europe. This is obviously aimed at the United States. The US once led in particle physics but as Dean Jorge Bocobo writes, the US has given up on the particle physics game.

1 comment:

Jego said...

Oh yeah? Well where did the Higgs boson get its mass? To answer that we need to build the ELHC, the Even Larger Hadron Collider that goes around the earth's circumference at the equator. :-D

BTW, Herr Rossler will be falsified next year, if at all, and if we're still alive, when the LHC starts colliding stuff.