Getting Ready for the Big Bang at CERN

By William Dowell
[This story appeared in Geneva's Essential Edge,
September 8, 2008]

LHC sensors at Cessy, France
[Click on photo to see slide show]

     On Wednesday morning, September 10, 2008, CERN, the Geneva-based European Center for Nuclear Research, will kick off the first stage of its Large Hadron Collider experiment  in a 27 kilometer circular tunnel, which lies roughly 100 meters underground. The tunnel, which contains 5,000 of the world’s most powerful magnets needed to keep opposing streams of protons precisely positioned,  cuts through a sizeable chunk of the bucolic Pays de Gex, where gently grazing cows seem blissfully unaware of the history making events about to take place beneath them.  

The basic idea of the experiment is to accelerate the proton streams to nearly the speed of light, and crash them into each other.  According to Einstein’s simple formula, E=mc2, i.e. energy equals mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light, the enormous energy of the collision will create new forms of matter in the form of particles that no one has actually seen before.

Experiments like this one have been done in the past, but not on this scale.  The accelerated protons are expected to make the 27-kilometer circuit 11,000 times a second.  When they eventually crash into each other, the impact will constitute the nearest approximation of the Big Bang that the human race has been able to manufacture so far. If physics ever approached the Biblical Tower of Babel, where man imitated God, this is it.  The LHC will create nearly seven times as much energy as a smaller collider at Fermilab, one of the largest in the US. The event  is already drawing enormous international attention.  The BBC plans to mark the occasion with live broadcasts and in-depth interviews throughout much of the day. 

 It is no surprise that the experiment has already generated at least two groups of fervent critics.

The first contends that the experiment is dangerous because the collision could create a microscopic black hole that might eventually swallow the earth, and the human race, as well as you and me, along with it.

The second faction isn’t concerned about black holes, but  questions whether the experiment, which has no immediate practical application, is wasting money that could be better spent elsewhere, say on international poverty or battling climate change.  CERN has an annual budget of around $1 billion, and by the time it finishes the project, the Large Hadron Collider will have cost more than $10 billion.

Ironically, it is this second argument—the one about cost-- which is the easiest to refute.  After all, $10 billion is roughly what the US spends each month on  the war in Iraq, which hardly seems to be an investment in the future.

But the CERN experiment may actually provide information that will ultimately save money. At present, there are a number of competing theories as to how physics, and ultimately, the universe actually works.  Until  these conflicts are resolved, there is a risk that hundreds of millions will be spent moving down a road of inquiry in a direction that ultimately proves to be a dead end.  The physical information that the CERN experiment provides should remove a number of roadblocks, and resolve at least some of these uncertainties.  Hopefully, it will place future research on a firmer footing, allowing all of us to get the foundation right for future investigations that will provide answers to challenges that we barely know about now.

Look at from a different perspective, the questions being asked about CERN’s work now are similar to the ones that were asked about the first halting experiments that led to the development of electricity, air travel, biology and all the major branches of science.  If scientists hadn’t made significant investments in their basic curiosity at the time, we’d still be living in caves, eating raw meat and reading by torch light. 

The concerns about planet-swallowing black holes are more troubling.  CERN insists that the danger is minimal, and that a safety committee of its own scientists has already investigated the threat completely. But the fact is that the experiment, by its very nature, is entering into uncharted territory.  We think we know what it will produce, but logically, we can’t.

Among those concerned about the potential dangers, Walter L. Wagner, has emerged as one of the most persistent advocates for proceeding with caution. Wagner questions whether some of the new particles created in the collision may turn out to be more destructive than we currently realize.  He argues that a micro-black hole might not be detectable for up to five years. If a black hole, even a microscopic one, were created, he says, it could drift towards the center of the earth and begin devouring the planet from the inside out.  The first detectable sign of its existence would be a surge in earthquakes as the planet collapses in on itself. Although Wagner has studied physics and biology, he does not belong to the particle physics mainstream, and his warnings have been largely discounted by most experts. Still, his thesis is the stuff that bone chilling science fiction disaster flicks are made of.  Wagner’s critique, along with a rather chilling animation of the earth collapsing internally, is currently viewable online on YouTube at:

Wagner also participates in an anti-experiment website, Citizens Against the Large Hadron Collider, at:

A much more upbeat, pro-LHC presentation is provided on YouTube by physicist, Michio Kaku, at:

Kaku explains that the experiment could produce black holes, but that they would be so small that they would be insignificant, producing barely enough energy to turn on a light bulb.  He insists that collisions far more powerful than the LHC take place in nature all the time.

Even more intriguing in Kaku’s YouTube video, is  his discussion of the media-public relations aspect of the experiment.  At the time that the LHC was being conceived, the US had its own plans to build an even larger super collider in Texas.  When a Congressional hearing asked physicists what they expected to get from the project, the physicists responded that they were looking for Higgs Bosun, one of the fundamental building blocks of existence.  Deciding that the price tag was too high, the Reagan administration and Congress cancelled the project, thus triggering a reverse brain drain that forced many of the leading US scientists to make pilgrimages to Geneva as the new worldwide center for particle physics.  “We should have called it the Genesis machine,” says Kaku, and in fact Higgs Bosun was subsequently dubbed the “God Particle.”  For better or worse, more than half the world’s leading particle physicists are now focused on the experiment. The US has contributed more than $500 million and 1200 scientists, just to have access to what the experiment will produce.  Whatever happens, the LHC has already put Geneva on the map.

For more information: 

CERN’s website is at:

The US contingent at CERN is at:

Fermilab is at

The Large Hadron rap (a hip explanation of the experiment by young CERN employees) is on YouTube  at:


--Cessy, France, September 2008