maandag 8 september 2008

The End of the World. Wednesday, That Is.

Or perhaps not.

That's when the Large Hadron Collider comes on-line. Don't ask me how it works. Though the idea to smash elementary particles together at virtually the speed of light just to see what happens when you do that sounds interesting enough.

Some worry it might mean the end of the world, though.

Apparently, it's been argued that there is a tiny change that the experiment will create a miniature black hole, which will then proceed to gobble up the earth while it turns into a very voracious not-so-miniature black hole. Concerns have been dismissed, though, as Stephen Hawking's theories suggest miniature black holes should quickly evaporate.

There's the parts that I don't like so much though. Phrases such as "According to standard calculations...", "The consensus of the scientific community suggests...", and so on. I'm aware that the existence of black holes has been convincingly demonstrated, that we've indirectly observed them through watching stars being ripped apart, seeing tendrils of gas sucked into their, well, blackness, and so on. Yet the idea of a singularity, an infinitesmal point with infinite mass, sounds so cosmically obscene to me that I cannot wholly trust it. A small voice inside me suggests that if theory comes up with monsters like this, perhaps theory should be reconsidered.

Yet, I'm convinced that if any serious fraction of the scientific world were genuinely concerned that there was any practical chance that LHC would lead to Armaggedon, they'd be all over Discovery Channel describing said Armaggedon in glorious detail. Look at all the programs about dinosaur-class meteorites lurking in the interplanetary junkyard waiting to take us out, about supervolcanoes belching ominously underneath Yellowstone, etc. etc.

There's few groups in society so hyper-aware of possible Apocalypse scenarios than natural scientists themselves. I recall that when the hydrogen bomb was going to be tested, Edward Teller, hardly a chicken little, was seriously concerned that it would ignite the whole atmosphere.

Then again, they tested the thing anyway. That gives me pause.

We'll see Wednesday, I guess. I wonder what would happen if they inadvertantly create a stable black hole. I guess there'd be titanic earthquakes as the world slowly falls into itself, oceans boiling, the ground turning to jelly and some such unpleasantness. But I wonder how long it would take. Would it be a matter of minutes? Months? Or would we have years before the earth becomes uninhabitable?

One of my favourite SF-novels, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, involves precisely such a scenario: in the far future, Earth has been destroyed by a LHC-like experiment gone wrong and a mini black hole wolfing down the insides of the earth, precipitating humanity's flight to the stars. Thing is, we don't have the spaceflight technology that Dan Simmons expected we would have around now, or in the near future around now. If this one goes bad, we have nowhere to turn to. We're stuck. On a literally crumbling planet awaiting the inevitable spaghettification. Save some friendly alien species organizing a mass evac. And it'd be a rather embarrassing way of entering the League of Space-Faring nations.

Come to think of it, didn't Asimov's Foundation Trilogy feature black hole ashtrays? Or my memory may be playing tricks on me. Makes me think though, my room at uni could do with a stable mini black hole waste disposal unit. Just goes to show, the natural scientists may come up with gargantuan machines smashing elementary particles at near-luminous speeds just to see what comes out, but it takes muddle-headed humanities figures like me to find some actual utility for them.

UPDATE: So, they're going to turn the doomsday switch at 9:30 AM, European time. That's another reason why I view my colleagues at the physics department with suspicion: their tendency to deploy activities at ungodly hours in the morning. The owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk, as Hegel wrote, and I cannot but agree: I'm at my most productive in the afternoon and early evening. But 9:30 is in the middle of the dreamtime for me, and even a black hole crashing through the centre of the earth isn't likely to wake me up.

I guess that would be in character, though, dying in the harness so to speak: oversleeping for the end of the world.

There was thunder
There was lightning
Then the stars went out
And the moon fell from the sky
It rained mackerel
It rained trout
And the great day of wrath has come
And here's mud in your big red eye
The poker's in the fire
And the locusts take the sky
And the earth died screaming
While I lay dreaming
Dreaming of you...

Tom Waits, "Earth Died Screaming"

2 opmerkingen:

Michael Hansen zei

I read a piece somewhere that if the black hole were to become stable, it would take 4 years to consume the earth. But that seems like a long time but the black hole would be very small. The black holes that form in space are from a collasped star and I would think have one solar mass when they come online so to speak. Maybe 4 years would be enough time for them to put in on the space shuttle and blast it into space.

Merlijn de Smit zei

That sounds a bit better. Four years is long enough to push things back past the existential panic horizon for me.

This said, scooping out a miniature black hole and shuttling it out sounds dicey. It'd have to be shuttled out pretty far as well. I guess you can't just leave the black hole in orbit.

So my hopes would still be on the massive Vulcan transporter ships appearing in the sky at just the right time. Sometimes, my hopes are there anyway. I don't care if I don't have any remotely useful skills. I can be a spaceship janitor fourth class. I can pile rocks on some forsaken desert outpost planet. Just get me out of here.