Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Science Time With Jen (And It's Not About Space Rocks).

This morning, I woke up at 4:45AM. Why so early? Did I have to go somewhere? Not really. I woke up that early because, my friends, I am like a kid on Christmas Eve, awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus!

THEY'RE GOING TO TURN ON THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER TODAY! Okay, technically Wednesday, but it'll still be Tuesday here. And technically, its not the first time it's been turned on, and they're not going to actually bash any particles together today. Today is more like a test run. The big show will be in October. But this test is enough to get super-stoked over... because if they manage to get a particle beam all the way around the 17 mile circle, all systems are go for launch and some really important questions can finally be answered, like:

  • Is time travel possible?
  • What about alternate universes?
  • Does the Higgs-Boson particle actually exist?
  • If it doesn't, what gives matter its mass?
  • Can Daleks really come get me?
  • We know Daleks can go up stairs now, but how about a spiral staircase? Am I cool if I'm up one of them?

Okay, so maybe it won't answer those last two. But you have no idea how exciting this is to someone like me, someone who sees this as a brave new frontier, the horizon of a world that, with luck and science, might someday be just like an episode of Dr. Who.

Now, before you go picking out ugly wallpaper for your Tardis, there is an ugly side to all of this physics fun (aside from the face that for seven years I have been consistently misreading the name of the LHC as "Large Hard-On Collider"). You see, just like with awesomely huge space rocks, someone has to get their panties all in a bunch about the end of the world, and how we're all doomed. Seriously, people, can't you just enjoy the science without ruining it for everyone else?

But here is what they're worried about:

"It's going to make a black hole that sucks up the earth." This is what happens when someone prone to paranoia and overreaction knows enough about something to formulate a worst case scenario, which they will then obsessively cling to until the world DOESN'T end and they just look foolish. For those who need a primer, a black hole is typically what happens when a star collapses. It leaves a spot of like, super compressed gravity. We can't see them, but we know they're there, because we can see what they're doing to nearby stars and galaxies by just sitting around. A black hole's gravitational field is inescapable; much like your crotchety neighbor's porch when you were growing up, if you throw a tennis ball over there, it is not coming back.
Now, the fear of most armchair scaredypantses is that the LHC will create a microscopic black hole, which will swallow up mass, becoming bigger and bigger and bigger until it sucks us up. Which, I guess, could happen, theoretically, if not for something called Hawking Radiation.
Stephen Hawking theorizes that all black holes emit radiation, and that, for example, a non-rotating Swarzschild black hole that is very, very tiny is going to burn up energy faster than it can collect mass. Without significant mass, it cannot collect mass at a higher rate, and therefore will fizzle out. So, I guess you could say that according to the theory of Hawking Radiation, black holes are like Katamari... you can only pick up things that will stick to your Katamari, and if you can't pick little stuff up fast enough, your timer is going to run out before you can pick up the big stuff and the Prince is going to shoot lightning at you from his magnificent eyes.
Now, this is where the paranoid conspiracy theorists' argument gets really fun. They throw a fit about how this microscopic black hole is going to magically stuff crap into its gaping maw and grow big enough to gobble up the planet because Hawking Radiation is an unproven theory.
Even if I explain it, it won't make any more sense, but I'll give it a try. Armchair physicists are pretty sure that Stephen Hawking, arguably the most brilliant theoretical physicist of our time, is wrong. No, wait, that's not quite it either. Armchair physicists are pretty sure that Stephen Hawking, arguably the most brilliant theoretical physicist of our time, is wrong, AND they, who have learned what they know about physics from the National Geographic Channel, are RIGHT.
My verdict: We're not going to get eaten up by a black hole created by the LHC. The LHC has the potential to create microscopic black holes, and that is a GOOD THING. It will give us a chance to observe that which has until now been unobservable... you know, theories like, oh, I don't know, HAWKING RADIATION. And even if Stephen Hawking is wrong, you're still an idiot, because the baby black holes will be high-tailing it out of the earth's gravitation, and likely won't be able to accumulate enough mass to become a threat until they're winging out through space, at which point they will slow to a crawl and eventually stop, having run out of breath after their proton buffet.

So, chill out, enjoy the LHC, and begin planning your Dalek escape routes now.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Say some stuff! If you can't think of anything to say, leave a link to a cute dog picture. I'm easy.