Particle Accelerators and Parallel Universes
The Times online reported recently that a data communications grid built to transfer data from the world's largest particle accelerator may be able to function as an alternate Internet, with speeds about 10,000 times faster than an average broadband connection. This network - referred to in the article simply as “the grid” - was built with modern fiber optic technology and currently has 55,000 servers connecting the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland with eleven locations internationally. The grid was built to house the data coming from CERN's newest project: the world's largest particle accelerator. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is designed to study the inner workings of matter and perhaps even discover the elusive Higgs Boson particle. Internet history buffs may recall that Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 while researching at CERN.
Although this new, cutting edge grid will most likely not be available for public use, it may eventually be tapped into by telecom corporations and government agencies. Currently the grid is being used for academic research, and according to the Times article, it has already been used to calculate potential chemicals for a malaria drug, analyzing 140 million compounds -- a data computing task that would have taken 420 years using standard Internet-linked computers. Potential benefits of an accelerated communications network of this magnitude might include more widely accessible video conferencing (and some are speculating holographic conferencing as well), online games with hundreds of thousands of players connected together simultaneously, and the ability to download a full length movie file in less than three seconds.
While these possibilities of rapid information exchange and scientific discovery are no doubt astounding, and could radically change the world we live in, there are possible dangers as well. In March, former nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner and another critic, Luis Sancho, filed a suit against the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermilab, the National Science Foundation, and CERN in an effort to stall the LHC project (currently scheduled to be activated by the end of summer) to allow for more research about safety concerns. The suit also asks for a full environmental review of the project by the U.S. Government, particularly in regards to certain doomsday scenarios which Wagner and other critics claim are possible. According to critics of the CERN project, possible scenarios involving the impact of the Large Hadron Collider on the natural environment might be immensely catastrophic and extremely bizarre, and could potentially even alter the very fabric of our reality.
One of their concerns is that the mini-black holes generated by this machine could eventually coalesce into a larger black hole that would then begin absorbing matter. Another possibility is that new combinations of quarks could come into existence, creating a stable, negatively-charged strangelet which could turn everything it touches into strangelets as well – plunging us into a parallel universe of stable, negatively-charged strangelets. Yet another theory is that high-energy collisions in the LHC could result in massive particles that only have one magnetic pole, rather than the typical north-south pole magnetism with which we are familiar. Critics worry that such particles could start a huge chain reaction, converting atoms into different forms of matter.
Even contemplating the possibility of such occurrences is a bizarre undertaking. While scientists have claimed that the CERN particle accelerator project is safe, no one is able to guarantee the results of sub-atomic particle experiments that have never been performed. A 2003 CERN report called “Study of Potentially Dangerous Events During Heavy-Ion Collisions at the LHC” assessed some of these dangers and found no basis for a threat. Yet Wagner contends that more research is required before the project should move forward.
While these hypothetical fears may seem laughable, this is nonetheless a somber situation that we face: living in a world with technologies now so advanced that they may be capable of erasing our reality in the blink of an eye. Such man-made doomsday scenarios are not limited to concerns about the LHC project either. Similar grim concerns have been voiced in recent years about the potential catastrophes of out of control nanotech, and the ominous specter of nuclear winter which still lingers from the days of the Cold war. While it seems that such world-devastation scenarios are becoming increasingly plausible, perhaps one of the most pressing questions facing the 21st century scientist, and the public at large, is: Even though we know we can... should we?
Tristan Gulliford is a writer, dreamer, and aspiring myth-keeper who makes electronic music under the name "Dreamcode". He is currently attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.
"The Large Hadron Collider" image by Image Editor on Flickr used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.