Let’s Talk About Extinction: CERN and Halo

Amidst talk about financial bailouts, economic atrophy and capitalist doom, another doomsday scenario has quietly faded away.   Whatever happened to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) mounted by those cheeky scientists of Cern (European Organization for Nuclear Research) laboratory on September 10?  The purpose, you may remember, was to simulate conditions of the universe at the point of its origin.  The location was a place near Geneva.

In one word, it melted.  A faulty connection between two supercooling magnets was cited as the culprit.  One of the biggest scientific experiments in history has been turned off.  It looks like we won’t have the pleasure of seeing humanity’s first pet black hole, if we are to believe some critics of the project.  That black hole, it was said, might result in the consumption of the earth.
Such is the nature of apocalyptic fantasies: they proliferate then hibernate.   To keep mulling over them makes one sound like a deranged mystic.  They take one back to similar doomsday scenarios in science.  One need not go far.  The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ( September 9), always at the ready to warn the morally lazy that world extinction is merely a trigger away, considered some of these in a review of the collider (public name, ‘Halo’).
During the Manhattan Project, Chief scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer commissioned a report – ‘LA-602: Ignition of the Atmosphere of with Nuclear Bombs’– which considered whether the detonation of an atomic explosion might lead to an uncontrollable sequence of nuclear reactions that would exterminate life on earth.

The report showed ‘that, whatever the temperature to which a section of the atmosphere may be heated, no self-propagating chain of nuclear reactions is likely to be started.’  Good for the project scientists, bad for the Japanese and everybody else: the project was allowed to continue to fruition.

The writers for the Bulletin – Anders Sandberg, Jason G. Matheny and Milan M. ?irkovi? – suggest that the scholarly literature on extinction is bare, and would barely fill a one-page bibliography.  They evidently did not consult medieval treatises or those of earlier civilizations which ponder the prospect of humanity’s end with eschatological relish.   Extinction – that is, human extinction – should be put on the policy books.  In truth, every scientist and policy maker specializing in a field that touches on the subject of demise and catastrophe (earthquakes, climate change, tsunamis, pandemics) all want a share of the doomsday pie.   One-page bibliographies are more like anthologies of destruction, actual and imminent.

The authors are not being optimistic enough.  An audience of one billion was observing the Halo with voyeuristic pleasure. Would they live to tell the tale?  Would beautiful Geneva vanish in the maelstrom of a black hole?  Protons were circulated around the collider without initial incident.  Then came the release of helium to cool the magnets used in guiding the particles within Halo, something in order of a ton.  A ‘quench’ thereby resulted – some 100 cooling magnets reaching temperatures of 100 degrees.

The damage inflicted will result in a delay of two months.  And that is far from theoretical.  The bill for the damage so far stands at $6.6 billion. The jury on human life, and its intense interest in its own demise, is still out.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge: bkampmark@gmail.com


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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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