Today might be the end of the world. It seems that mad scientists have created a machine that could destroy everything. Or could it?
Before worrying too much about the safety of the experiment, it is worth spending a bit of time on why it is being performed. It is all to do with something called "The Standard Model", which has been created to explain how the universe works.
If you try to hit a tennis ball really hard you have to work hard. This is because the ball has mass, and you need to put in work to make that mass move. You have to work even harder with a bowling ball, because that has greater mass. Take your bowling ball to pieces at the lowest possible level and you find a bunch of particles inside the atoms that it is made of. The Standard Model has to explain how all these particles work together to give you something that behaves like a bowling ball. We can prove the Standard Model by finding evidence of all the particles that it says must be there.
Thing is, one of the most important particles, the one that makes mass work, and makes a tennis ball behave differently from a bowling ball from a mass point of view, has not been observed in the wild yet. This particle is called the "Higgs Boson", after Peter Higgs, who suggested it as a way to make the Standard Model work. Unfortunately you can only observe the existence of these particles at very start of the universe, when things are compressed really tightly together. The rest of the time they fade into the background and we can only infer that they exist by the fact that the universe seems to behave in the way the Standard Model predicts.
So, to prove that the model is right, we have to create the same conditions as the start of the universe by bashing some bits of atoms together where we can look at them. Then this magic particle will appear, we will see it and we will know the Standard Model works. Or it won't appear and we'll know that it is duff. Or the universe will end, and we will not know anything....
The danger is that when you bash these particles together you can't be absolutely sure what you will get. You might compress them so much that they turn into a black hole, and suck everything in. You might create particles that haven't existed since the origins of the universe, and these might combine with everything around them and turn all matter into a new state, which could be grey goo.
The bad news is that since nobody has done this experiment in this way, nobody can really say what will happen when we do it. Scientists are very hard to pin down. They will never say "That won't happen" they will say "That is very unlikely to happen". By "very unlikely" they probably mean things like "hasn't happened in the last 13.7 billion years", but it still rings alarm bells. The weatherman sometimes says that rain is "very unlikely" and then we get wet anyway.
As far as I'm concerned, I feel quite safe. The kind of collisions that are going to happen in the experiment are taking place all around us all the time as high energy particles from space bash into the earth. I find it hard to believe that the people around the device are prepared to risk the future of the universe just to prove a scientific point. And if I'm wrong, nobody will be around to sue me anyway.
I wrote this piece as a way of organising my thoughts for a local radio interview I did about the Hadron Collider this morning.
I've just done the interview and it seemed to go OK. Everyone at the station said how wonderful it was, they reckoned that, given the circumstances, I might as well go out on a high....