It's All Doom and Gloom and Then You Die – CERN and the end of the world

News emerged that up to 10,000 people will lose their jobs in the coming months. In the UK car sales have plummeted. The housing market is lumpen and leaden. Journalists are beside themselves with excitement over the prospects of recession and doom and gloom.

Then, to complete the set, the world could end tomorrow. Seriously.

In case you haven’t heard scientists will tomorrow fire up a colossal machine which, theoretically at least, could create a black hole into which we’ll all be sucked and it’s adios!

The machine is the CERN particle accelerator and is built inside the Jura mountains on the border between France and Switzerland. It runs for 27km way underground and will serve to accelerate particles to 99.99% of the speed of light and then bash them into each other. Scientifically speaking. Here is some more informed explanation courtesy of Dick Ahlstrom, the Science Editor of the Irish Times.

(Even if you’re not a science geek, stick with this because the stats are staggering.)

The CERN project is a collaboration between lots of countries in a £4bn project to recreate conditions as they were just after the Big Bang, that moment when time, space and matter began. What these dozens of countries have built is a Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator which will send two beams of light speeding round the 27km circuit in opposite directions before crashing them into each other at speeds approaching that of light. It has capacity to teach particle physicists about the constituent parts of the original atoms, and cosmologists will learn about the formation of the universe. So it’s £4bn to learn about the smallest things and the biggest things.

The collider is a hollow metal tube running in a tunnel under the mountains. It will take the ions a mere 89 millionth of a second to complete a full circuit – Usain Bolt eat your heart out, so that’s 11,245 laps a second. This colossal ring has all the air sucked out of it creating an enormous vacuum.

Keeping the particles moving and on track will be accomplished by 1,600 powerful electromagnets made of 10,000 tonnes of iron – more than is built into the Eiffel Tower. If the super-fine filaments were unravelled there would be enough wire to reach to the sun and back five times, with a little left over for a few trips to the moon.

This wound iron will sit in the biggest refrigerator in the world, chilling things down to a remarkable -271.3 degrees, transforming the wires into superconductors i.e.they can carry electricity without resistance.

Energy is measured in volts and previously the highest voltages achieved measured a million million electron volts. When the LHC cranks up each of its beams will carry 14 million million volts – about the energy of two speeding locomotives colliding head on. The difference here is that all that colliding energy will be focussed down to less than the point of a needle – in fact, to a point the size of an atom.

The collisions won’t start for a few months (take a deep breath then) but on Wednesday the scientists will switch on the machine and send a beam of particles around the circuit. And the man who rejoices in the title of the Head of Cern’s Accelerator and Beams Department, or the Lord of the Ring if you prefer, is a Belfast man, Steve Myers.

Wouldn’t you just know it. There’s a Norn Ireland guy in charge of crashing things into one another, making big bangs and explosions and threatening to blow the whole shooting match to kingdom come.

And here’s another thing, with all this power at his disposal, and the decades of planning and building and all the vast fortunes sunk into this tunnel, on switch on day, he saying, ‘and sure we might just send a beam around the other way – just for a laugh like!’ But they won’t know until the day.

Now the big ask: is it safe?


Something called string theory posits the existence of multiple dimesions and allows for the possibility that the collider could reach high enough energies to trigger exceptional gravitational fields in alternate dimensions, which in turn could create mini black holes inside the machine, producing the effect of consuming not just the ring but the whole earth and anything else in the general neighbourhood.

I have no idea what that means really, but it sounds fantastic. And I say…go for it ya boy ya! It would be the appropriate conclusion to our Peace Process.

In all seriousness though I confess to finding this stuff endlessly fascinating. I’m in awe of the guys in charge and the imagination required to dream up these things  and the indefatigable commitment it takes to realise the dream. And to go for it even if it could mean the end of the world. It’s absolutely hilarious. But it is another element of that command to fill and subdue the earth. But also of human hubris that so often over-reaches itself.

No doubt fundamentalists all over the world are thrilled. At least those who read the scientific journals. Because if the worst comes at least the believers will have been raptured some time in advance. Then we’ll get a chance to see if the rapture-triggered email works.

On a more serious note, I do understand the fears of some about scientific advance, particularly the fears of those who profess faith. Often the fear is to do with believing men and women are acting in the place of God. But to my understanding, that is precisely a key dimension of the creation mandate. That in exploring our world, and uncovering its mysteries we are acting like God, acting in his image. And yes, sometimes we get ahead of ourselves, but is that a good reason to stop science? Even the risk-taking part? I don’t think so. Sure aren’t we all glad that God is a risk-taking God?

So finally, if the world ends on Wednesday, and we’re all consumed, don’t come crying to me and say I didn’t warn you.

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