Smashing Idea

Scientists fire up the world's largest particle collider in Switzerland, but fears about the experiment creating black holes that could devour the Earth and other planets are not realized. Video by AP
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

MEYRIN, Switzerland

It is the biggest machine ever built. Everyone says it looks like a movie set for a corny James Bond villain. They are correct. The machine is attended by brainiacs wearing hard hats and running around on catwalks. They are looking for the answer to the question: Where does everything in the universe come from? Price tag: $8 billion plus.

The world's largest particle accelerator is buried deep in the earth beneath herds of placid dairy cows grazing on the Swiss-French border. The thing has been under construction for years, like the pyramids. Its centerpiece is a circular 17-mile tunnel that contains a pipe swaddled in supermagnets refrigerated to crazy-low temperatures, colder than deep space.

The idea is to set two beams of protons traveling in opposite directions around the tunnel, redlining at the speed of light, generating wicked energy that will mimic the cataclysmic conditions at the beginning of time, then smashing into each other in a furious re-creation of the Big Bang -- this time recorded by giant digital cameras.

Wednesday, they fired this sucker up, the Associated Press reported.

It will be months before the proton beams reach full power and produce the kinds of exotic collisions that may herald an age of "new physics." But if the machine works -- this most ambitious, expensive, technologically advanced civilian scientific experiment in history -- it would be a happening for humanity.

"I think we may have to rewrite our textbooks," said Fabiola Gianotti, a project leader for Atlas, one of the four huge detectors that will record and analyze the collisions. "There must be something more than we have seen. There is something missing from the puzzle."

The Large Hadron Collider, as it is called by the 8,000 scientists, engineers and technicians from 85 countries who dote on it, will probe the most fundamental mysteries. From the fireballs, there may spring forth black holes and the elusive thing that gives matter its mass. Or not! There may be particles called "strangelets" and evidence of "dark matter" and signs of "supersymmetry" and maybe a little antimatter.

Oh, and they might find some extra dimensions. But this is the delicious part. They. Don't. Exactly. Know.

That accounts for the last-minute legal challenges by opponents who worry that the Large Hadron Collider -- hadrons, by the way, are collections of quarks, which are the particles inside protons and neutrons, which form the nucleus of the atom -- may spark a chain reaction of runaway events that could destroy the planet.

Their greatest concern is that the black holes, the stuff of a hundred "Star Trek" subplots, could grow and suck, grow and suck, which is what black holes do. A retired radiation safety expert in Hawaii sought a restraining order in a U.S. court, but was denied. Another group filed its doomsday appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, which also declined to act.

To calm public anxiety, the proton smashers investigated safety concerns and said any black holes "would be entirely benign" and would decay almost instantly. They would be "mini black holes," just like the ones that occur (the theorists say) whenever a couple of cosmic rays collide in space. Nature has already conducted experiments just like this, the report concludes, "and the planet still exists."

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