- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2008

Blaming George W. for everything from the dog’s mange to an itch in places impolite to scratch is summer fun for a lot of people. So is listening to Barack Obama’s gaffes, blunders and splutters. But repetition can make anything boring.

So here’s something new, scarier even than the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s scheme to surgically alter Sen. Obama to make him eligible for the Ladies Auxiliary Choir. This doomsday would be the result of a misunderestimation beyond the ability of George W.

Physicists will fire up something called the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland next month and if everything goes wrong we’ll be reduced to atoms, quarks and strangelets floating out there among the stars. Except that there won’t be any stars. They’ll be reduced to the ashes of infinity, too.

The odds against anything that bad actually happening are estimated by one eminent physicist as “only” 1 in 50 million. These are about the odds against buying a winning lottery ticket, which are mathematically about the same as winning the lottery without buying a lottery ticket.

The Large Hadron Collider consists of a ring of supercooled magnets measuring 17 miles around, buried 350 feet below the ground on the Swiss-French border. Two beams of protons will race through tubes in the collider, speeding through a vacuum infinitely colder and more intense than anything in outer space. Magnets will guide their trajectory, and if the worst happens when they bang into each other they would produce a tiny “black hole,” an infinitely smaller version of the collapsed stars in space whose gravity fields are so powerful they can suck in planets and other stars. The tiny black holes that are the work of the collider might be slower in developing into something bigger, and become entrapped inside Earth’s gravity, and boom! Or worse, poof!

Only mad scientists actually fully understand what the Large Hadron Collider is all about, and even they aren’t quite sure what it will do. They expect to discover many things, like invisible matter, or even extra dimensions in space in addition to the three spatial senses earthly mortals experience. They scoff at the risks, if there are any. “Obviously,” Lyn Evans, the project leader, told the Associated Press, “the world will not end when the [collider] switches on.” One physicist at work on the project gave the Associated Press man an indulgent smile in reply to questions about whatever black holes and hypothetical killer particles the collider might produce. “If I thought that was going to happen, I would be well away from here.” If it does happen, he will indeed be well, well away from what used to be here.

Our European friends insist concerns are ridiculous, childish even. A team of scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which the French insist on calling CERN, say there is “no conceivable danger.” The reassurances are naturally sprinkled with words like “unlikely” and “improbable” in describing the bad things that could happen. The eminent British physicist Stephen Hawking predicts that the micro black holes, even if they exist, will instantly evaporate. Probably. The CERN scientists note that cosmic rays have been bombarding Earth for billions of years, and the planet, though a little worse for wear and tear, is still here.

One physicist who remains skeptical is Walter L. Wagner. He’s also a lawyer, and sued to stop everything. He filed in a state court in Hawaii, where no judge, as important as he may think he is, has anything of interest to say about what anyone does in Switzerland. Mr. Wagner argues that the CERN safety report has “several major flaws,” but lawyers for the Justice Department, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation filed motions asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Whatever else it will do, the Large Hadron Collider will generate billions of bits of data, enough in a year to fill a stack of computer disks 12 miles high. A global network of computers will analyze the data and spit out enough to keep the physicists at work until they spend the $5.8 billion contributed by several European governments. The lawsuit is likely to come to naught. So, too, the fears of cosmic cataclysm. But if Lawyer Wagner is correct there won’t be anybody left to sue.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.



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