Monday, January 19, 2009

Black Holes, Eiffel-Tower Magnets and The Mystery of Dark Matter

by Julia Buckley
My son used to be a very anxious little person. He'd ask me, even at four, serious things like whether he would die in his sleep or if a tornado would come and carry us away. I am convinced it was a biological inheritance rather than an emotional one--in my family we all tended to be obsessive little people, and that, doctors say, has a fear component.

I'm happy to say he's mostly grown out of it. He's fourteen, and prefers to spend his time either ignoring me or making really annoying sounds right next to my ear drum. But yesterday, while I did dishes, he appeared next to me and said, "So have you heard about this giant particle accelerator that they're building in Switzerland?"

I hadn't heard too much about it, which I confessed to him. Just that it existed.

"But, I mean--if they try to re-create the Big Bang, are we all going to die?" he asked, showing me those big earnest eyes that hadn't changed much since he was little and fearful of funnel clouds.

"Of course not," I assured him. "But let's do some research." This is my answer to everything, and it's served me well.

The giant particle accelerator is located in an underground labrynth 300 feet beneath pastoral Switzerland. More than 2000 physicists are working on this eight billion dollar project launched by a company called CERN. An NPR reporter who witnessed the placement of a 2000 ton electromagnet into a subterranean chamber put this weight into perspective: it is "the weight of five jumbo jets, or one-third of the weight of the Eiffel tower." Ironically, according to the NPR story, this giant electromagnet is a baby compared to a larger one that waits in the wings: a seven story behemoth that they have named ATLAS.

The goal of creating the jumbo accelerator is, of course, to help solve some mysteries of the universe and infinite space. How? Apparently by smashing things together to see what sort of new particles are created--perhaps things that have only been theorized about, but never found, on earth. The machine may in fact create dark matter, so called because scientists know it exists, but don't know what it is.

Another goal of the accelerator is to create mini black holes. This is a long shot, scientists say, but all 2000 of the CERN scientists and many scientists throughout the world seem to be quite excited at the prospect. (Not that some aren't protesting this giant accelerator--scientists included). They know that this is probably not going to happen, and yet it is a theoretical possibility. With this giant science experiment, they hope to take it beyond theory.

According to another source, when "the Large Hadron Collider gets going, it will begin blasting protons - one of the building blocks of atoms - almost at the speed of light, generating temperatures of over one trillion degrees centigrade."

This humongous creation is meant to study the tiniest of matter--a paradox of science which, hundreds of years in the future, might seem like a primitive quest for knowledge.

For now, though, it's the biggest thing on our scientific frontier.

To answer my son's question: is it safe? Are we in danger from these potential black holes? According to David Kestenbaum, questioned in the NPR interview, "No, they wouldn't live long. Estimates are a thousandth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second."

So they labor to create a giant in the hopes that in less than the blink of an eye they might find an answer to the creation of the world.

And that is the most fascinating mystery there is.

NPR link here
photo link here


Anonymous said...

Hi, Julia,
Your son would probably enjoy Dan Brown's ANGELS AND DEMONS. The plot starts at CERN and gives some great descriptions and facts in a fast-paced story. Since it is fiction, it tends to be an easy read while still giving the science.
Wow, 14 years old! Enjoy him and all his quirks.
Mary Beth

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Mary Beth! That's a great idea.