"Aren't you nervous?" "Nope."
-Manhattan Project physicists Isidor Rabi and Kenneth Greisen, lying on the ground one minute before the first atomic bomb test, July 1945
"Now I'm scared."
-Greisen, as the countdown hit 10 seconds
On the day of the The Trinity Test, Enrico Fermi offered a bet to any takers. Would the device incinerate the atmosphere? And if so, would it destroy the entire world or just New Mexico? He was kidding, of course, but the joke underlined a concern held by a vocal minority in the physics community. These critics maintained that the bomb might start a chain reaction, fusing nitrogen nuclei in a ball of fire that would consume all the air on Earth.
Guys in lab coats thought it over, said "Nah we're fine," and pressed the shiny red button.
New Mexico was not scorched to ash. Well, we're 95% sure it wasn't — honestly, it's hard to tell.
Sixty-three years later, a similar debate has raged, with the fate of the planet once again hanging in the balance. The Large Hadron Collider, an $8 billion research facility based in Switzerland, began operations today. We here at AN wanted to take a few moments to get you up to speed.
Large Hadron what now? Collider, as in particle collider. The LHC is a 17-mile circular tunnel which will smash sub-atomic particles together at nearly the speed of light, creating smaller particles.
How exactly does it do that? With massive magnets that are cooled to -455 degrees Fahrenheit. The cooling process takes nearly a month, which strongly indicates that none of the LHC engineers have ever spent a summer in Houston. No joke, those bastards air condition their sidewalks. They'd have the thing ready to go by lunchtime.
$8 billion to look at smaller particles? There's got to be more to it than that. By breaking tiny bits into the tiniest bits possible, physicists aim to re-create the conditions of The Big Bang. Specifically, they hope to prove the existence of the Higgs boson particle, which would be a landmark step towards developing a Grand Unified Theory.
Higgs boson? I'm not even touching this one. Go nuts.
The pictures of the LHC they've shown on the news make it look like the interior of the Death Star. Is all that really necessary? If you can think of an easier way to make one septillionth of a paper clip come within an ass-hair of light speed, some high-ranking officials would like to speak to you. As would the entire LHC staff, Stephen Hawking, the Nobel Foundation, and the ghost of Albert fucking Einstein.
Alright, jeez. Look, I'm just saying, this is breakthrough science, and it requires one of the most complex machines ever built.
Fine, whatever, but you can certainly say that without being such a di— Hey, wait a minute, I get it! “Take a few moments to get you up to speed!” As in the speed of light! (Sigh.)
So what's this Earth-shattering debate about? Earth-imploding debate, actually. As with the development of the atomic bomb, there have been a few critics loudly warning that the device may destroy the world. The high-energy collisions of these particles could, the critics theorize, create a black hole.
... a black hole?? In Switzerland.
And what exactly would happen in there was a black hole in Switzerland? If the planet has a milkshake. And the black hole has a milkshake. And the black hole has a straw, there it is, there's the straw, watch it. And the black hole's straw reaches across the room, and starts to drink the planet's milkshake ... it drinks our milkshake. It drinks it up.
But they activated the LHC today, right? Everything's fine? No black holes? Well, yes and no. The collider successfully completed test firings, accelerating particles clockwise and counter-clockwise. But its first particle collisions won't happen until late October.
Okay. Well then what are the odds that the paranoiacs are right? A long lineup of experts swear up and down that the LHC is perfectly safe. A couple admit that there is something like a 1 in 50 million chance of a minor black hole, but it would be short-lived and have insufficient energy to so much as make popcorn.
So basically, guys in lab coats thought it over, said "Nah we're fine," and will press the shiny red button. Basically, yes.
Editor's note: The exchange quoted at the top of the page actually happened. Had it been a typical Analog Nation joke, it would have stank of that "I'm smart, validate me!" desperation.