Friday, February 14, 2014

Are We Really in Danger?

Although it may seem like the horrifying event in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, when antimatter was created at CERN in Switzerland, is far out of science’s reach, in reality, events like this could be more probable than people are expecting. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, at CERN has the possibility of creating miniature black holes. Starting construction in 1998 and taking ten years to build, the LHC is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world and is considered “one of the great engineering milestones of mankind,” as stated by Harvey Newman. This machine allows physicists to test predictions of particle physics, such as the existence of the Higgs particle, by using magnets to accelerate particles towards each other at nearly the speed of light. Sometimes these particles will collide and send out bursts of energy, which are detected by the LHC. But, perfect conditions and a head on collision of particles could cause a black hole to form inside the LHC.

These black holes are created when two quarks, subcomponents of protons, collide nearly head-on, creating a high concentration of mass that results in a mini-black hole in the LHC. These black holes would not pose a significant threat though, since they would evaporate quickly after their creation, faster than they would be able to engulf any matter. Most black holes like this would only exit for about 10^-25 seconds and although their decay would result in a blast of energetic particles, they would not be dangerous. Even though there are minor consequences after a black hole has formed in the LHC, there is not a high probability of them forming in the first place and it is said by researcher Frans Pretorious that “with about as much confidence as we can say anything in science, [their creation] is completely impossible”.

While threats of creating a mini black hole have not been significant in the past, the LHC has not been running on full power since its launch in 2008. This could contribute to the lessened danger of the machine. With the LHC being amped up to full power, twice the power it has been using, in 2015, the threats could become much larger. Even CERN has recognized that there is a 70% chance of creating these black holes that do not evaporate, or another dense, condensed quark liquid, such as a “strangelet”. A strangelet is a liquid explosive made of strange quarks, which can cause the “ice-9 reaction” where ice melts at 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 32 degrees and life would cease to be able to exist on earth. Since these have a probability of happening it not a matter of “if” they will happen, but “when” they will happen, since anything with a probability that is not zero will always happen eventually with enough trials or time. When the LHC gets fired up to full power, not only will miniature black holes be a threat, but we may have to worry about the fate of our Earth as well.
Emily Helfer

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