Published September 09, 2008
The clock is ticking.
At 3:30 a.m. EDT Wednesday, scientists on the Franco-Swiss border will flip the switch on the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile underground ring where subatomic particles will be accelerated to astonishing speeds and then smashed into each other.
It'll be months before any usable data comes out from the experiments, but the so-called "Big Bang machine" already has physicists salivating at the prospect of unlocking the mysteries of the universe — and many other people worried it'll create a black hole or strange self-replicating particle that will gobble up the Earth.
Professor Stephen Hawking, easily the world's most renowned living physicist, came down squarely in the "it's a good thing" camp Tuesday in a interview with BBC Radio: "Whatever the LHC finds, or fails to find, the results will tell us a lot about the structure of the universe."
Large Hadron Collider operator CERN — officially the European Organization for Nuclear Research — has conducted several safety reviews and concluded that there is very little risk of something going horribly wrong.
The researchers' top aim is to find the Higgs boson, a sub-subatomic particle that's essential to the so-called Standard Model of nuclear physics, but which has never been seen.
Previously unknown particles are also expected to pop up, if only for a millionth of a second, from the high-energy collisions of protons and antiprotons.
A pair of Russian scientists even think the LHC would be the world's first time machine, and that we should expect visitors from the future to arrive soon after it goes into operation.
For that, $10 billion dollars has been spent to build the machine, the largest supercollider on Earth ever since the project to build an even larger ring in Texas was canceled in 1993.
But the very fact that it would create unknown particles, as well as incredibly dense microscopic black holes that would almost instantly evaporate, has raised many fears.
"It's nonsense," CERN chief spokesman James Gillies told the Associated Press.
A columnist on Wired magazine's Web site said that "the likelihood of these black holes becoming the more well-known kind of black hole is nearly nonexistent."
Brian Cox, a glamorous particle physicist who literally was once a rock star, told London's Daily Telegraph that he and his colleagues had been receiving death threats.
He then bluntly characterized anyone who feared the LHC would destroy the world with an unprintable term for a female body part.
That hasn't stopped several people, including a former nuclear engineer from Hawaii and a German biochemist, from speaking out against the project.
"Someone will spot a light ray coming out of the Indian Ocean during the night and no one will be able to explain it, retired Professor Otto Roessler told London's Mail on Sunday. "Very soon the whole planet will be eaten in a magnificent scenario — if you could watch it from the moon. A Biblical Armageddon. Even cloud and fire will form, as it says in the Bible."
"[T]he compression of the two atoms colliding together at nearly light speed will cause an irreversible implosion, forming a miniature version of a giant black hole," reads a lawsuit filed in March in U.S. District Court in Honolulu by Walter L. Wagner and a Spanish colleague, Luis Sancho.
The case, in which Wagner and Sancho demand that the LHC stop operations until an independent safety review is conducted, is still pending.
Wagner first became famous a decade ago when he filed suit against the opening of the smaller Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider on Long Island, claiming it too would destroy the world when it started up in 2000.
Public reaction, true to form, has been mixed.
"This is an abomination and should not be allowed to go ahead," wrote "Proud Teeside Lass" in comments attached to the Mail on Sunday story.
One colleague at FOXNews.com asked whether the LHC would really destroy the world — "My mortgage payment is due, and, I mean, what's the point?"
"This reminds me of the Millennium Bug! I love hysteria — it makes me laugh and I need a good laugh," said "Johan of Brisbane" in the comments to an Australian News Corp story.
Best of all was the posting on the same page by "KnowerOfAll": "Chuck Norris doesn't look for God Particles — he creates them."
Gillies told The Associated Press that the most dangerous thing that could happen would be if a beam of protons at full power were to go out of control, and that would only damage the collider itself and burrow into the rock around the tunnel.
Full power is probably a year away.
"On Wednesday, we start small," Gillies said. "What we're putting in to start with is one single low-intensity bunch at low energy and we thread that around. We get experience with low-energy things and then we ramp up as we get to know the machine better."
Huge amounts of data will pour in — so big that the lab's computers can't sift through it all. So scientists, who will monitor the experiment at above-ground control centers, have devised a way to share the load among dozens of leading computing centers worldwide.
The result is the "LHC Grid," a network of 60,000 computers to analyze what happens when protons are hurled at each other. That computing power is needed if scientists are to find what they are looking for among the mountains of data.
"You can think of each experiment as a giant digital camera with around 150 million pixels taking snapshots 600 million times a second," said CERN's Ian Bird, who leads the grid project.
Sophisticated filters discard all but the most interesting data, still leaving some 15 petabytes to be analyzed. That's enough to fill 2 million DVDs.
The data will be sent to 11 top research institutions in Europe, North America and Asia, and from there to a wider network of 150 research facilities around the world for scrutiny by thousands of researchers.
Collaborating on such a large project has proved invaluable, said Ruth Pordes, executive director of the Open Science Grid at Fermilab in Chicago. The U.S.-government funded project is among the major contributors to the grid.
"We are doing things that are at the boundaries of science," Pordes said. "But the technologies, the methods and the results will be picked up by industry."
Even if the LHC experiment doesn't yield answers to the cosmic questions, historians may one day see it as a key step in developing networked computing.
It wouldn't be the first time that has happened at CERN. In 1990, young British researcher Tim Berners-Lee created a computer-based system for sharing information with colleagues around the world.
He called it the World Wide Web.
FOXNews' Paul Wagenseil and The Associated Press contributed to this report.