If you’re reading this column in the middle of the week then it’s a pretty good bet that the world hasn’t ended. So that’s nice. Perhaps I should explain.
Unbeknownst to those of us who aren’t physicists, for the last 14 years a bunch of geeks with shovels have been busy digging a tunnel underneath France and Switzerland that ultimately could result in the end of the world. Apparently, when you allow really smart people access to heavy machinery, slide rules and about 14 billion dollars, they come up with an experiment that could either explain the Big Bang theory or, possibly, create black holes that will swallow the earth in a fiery maelstrom of universal death and destruction.
One outcome could revolutionize the way the scientific community understands particle physics, while the other would at least signal the end of the depressing mortgage crisis. To be fair to the big brains that have cooked up this mother of all science fair exhibits, there's realistically only a teensy-tiny chance that what they’re doing this week could return us all to cosmic dust particles. A particle physics expert interviewed earlier this week by the PWB science intern said that nobody involved actually believes they’ll destroy the world, saying “ ... it (world destruction) is a remote possibility I suppose, who knows, maybe," adding that “ ... wow, that would really suck, wouldn’t it?”
I first learned about this bit of scientific hijinks the other day during our regular Monday morning staff meeting here at the PWB command center. Bobo the talking intern, apparently serving as the intern representative, mentioned the impending experiment and asked what the office policy was in the event of global destruction. I consulted the HR handbook and announced that it would not be considered a paid holiday and sick leave policies would be in effect.
I suppose some details are in order. An outfit called the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also referred to as CERN, has created something called the Large Hadron Collider 300 feet below the Swiss-French border. Sometime early in the morning of Wednesday, September 10, some guy named Henri will pull the lever and a beam of protons will shoot out around a 17-mile long racetrack. The protons, futilely chasing a mechanical rabbit, will supposedly race around the Collider at really fast speeds until they create conditions similar to the moment just before or after the Big Bang.
Honest to God, I’m not making this up. Scientists all over the world will be holding their breath in anticipation. Many of the European scientists will be smoking while holding their breath. And sipping coffee from tiny little cups. Somewhere outside Chicago, scientists working at something called the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, will be hosting a pajama party for folks to watch the flipping of the switch. There will be webcasts and remote satellite hookups and even a live broadcast on Eurovision.
Did I mention that one possible outcome is the death of mankind? Never mind, it’s a really cool experiment. Life’s a series of risks anyway. I’m not going to get all surly and begrudge all those physicists their fun. Who am I to rain on their pajama party?
Thousands of scientists from around the world have been involved in building the Collider and, at roughly 8 billion dollars, it reportedly is the most expensive experiment ever. At least that’s some consolation. How irritating would it be if the world ended because of an experiment that didn’t cost much?
For those PWB readers who must know, the Collider is set up to accelerate protons to energies of 7 trillion electron volts, an amount referred to by one expert as “ … a heck of a lotta’ juice.” After revving up these little proton fellas and shooting them around the track for a while, they all smash together in a big proton pileup. The scientists, most of whom will be wearing 3-D goggles and rubber gloves, will then learn the mysteries of the universe.
Apparently, what the smart guys and gals hope to learn is what exactly happens when the Collider reaches temperatures and energies equal to those just after the Big Bang. I once put a tomato in the microwave and set it on high for five minutes to see what would happen. It's a similar effort.
The Collider will — if all goes well — shed light on some theories referred to as the Standard Model. This is not the same as the Super Model, whose theories are rarely discussed within the scientific community. It seems that the Standard Model provides insight into the crazy world of particle physics, but fails to explain what was going on during the exact time when the universe came on the scene.
Once they flip the switch and the protons get up a head of steam, it appears to be anybody’s guess what might happen. There have been a few naysayers who predict calamity, chaos and destruction. These folks, referred to by the traditionally upbeat physicists as “nerds,” have predicted that the experiment could generate unexpected consequences that could destroy the world.
Personally, I can’t imagine being destroyed because a bunch of bright bulbs just had to answer some burning theoretical questions. If the doomsday predictions are right, I am going to be really irritated. The NFL season has just started, I’ve just had the house repainted and I bought a new television and sprung for the extended warranty package. What a load of crap.
On the other hand, it does beg the question, what would you do if the world was about to end because of a super proton smash up? We played this game yesterday in the PWB offices and most of the answers were decidedly vacuous. No surprise there.
But now I turn it over to you. Let us know: If the lights were going out in 24 hours, how would you spend your remaining time? Send your thoughts and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Til’ next week — if there is one — stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," as well as major motion pictures.