Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Not the end of the world

My friend Stephen is one of those physicists who built linear accelerators and EMP generators in his basement as a kid. And he can get all starry eyed talking about string theory and Mbrain theory and cosmic wormballs and other stuff biologists like me don't understand. But it is fun to hear him talk about it because he is so enthusiastic and brilliant.

I used to ask him physics questions that I didn't even know entirely what the question meant, just to get him started. One time, when we were in college, we were talking over nachos and tea at the Upstairs Cafe. It was a bit hard to hear him, given that the noise of the band in the Downstairs Cafe was shaking the floor. But I asked him why energymass (the two being the same) is conserved, and if there are any exceptions. Stephen thought for a while, rambled for a while, then said that they are not exactly conserved, because there is quantum variation. He talked about that for a while, and I got the impression that what he was saying was that on a minute scale the universe is a froth of energymass popping in and out of existence, but that these things were usually so small and numerous they mostly cancelled each other out, leaving the energymass in the universe very close to constant. Then he said something I didn't grok about the Big Bang being, at least in part, an example in which the scale was much larger and a whole bunch of energymass was created all at once.

So the next question I asked, having an environmental bent, was whether it was theoretically possible we could use all this in some way to make energy, and thereby end the need for fossil fuels. This started Stephen on a train of thought that he made me promise not to share with anyone, which is easy because I understood almost none of it. But it ended with me being somewhat concerned that if I understood even a little of what he was saying, he might just accidentally blow up the world. I made him promise that he wouldn't and also wouldn't teach anyone else how to. He saw why I was concerned, but said that he would make sure he fully understood the physics involved before he tried to tap into "quantum energy" whatever that is.

This all came back to me last night when my brother emailed me a NYTImes article about the Large Hadron Collider. The article claims they will recreate "conditions that last prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old." Like the Big Bang all over again. Jason's commentary was, "I can't help but think of that theory that we don't see radio traces of other species because advanced species quickly kill themselves off, perhaps by creating huge toys that destroy their planets accidentally."

This kind of concern has been raised many times, mostly in science fiction. The basic idea is that it requires a lower level of technology to blow ourselves up than to say hi across light years. Possibly true, but I doubt this is that experiment.

I'll write later on my thoughts regarding extraterrestrial life, but sticking with the collider experiment, I think that as usual, the popular media are grossly overstating their case. The accelerator may be designed to recreate something that has certain similarities to the very early universe, but is this really the first time since the Big Bang that particles have collided at these speeds? No. They just don't usually do it in a way that we can predict, control and build giant detectors in anticipation.

Clearly the power input is not on a world destroying scale. So in order to trigger Alderaan, they would either have to set off some novel sort of mass to energy conversion chain reaction, or they would have to accidentally open the taps on quantum energy. And they would have to do this on a scale that would destroy earth, but would not be obviously detectable from the rest of the universe. If colossal amounts of energy came spilling out into the universe from nowhere every time particles collided at certain energies, wouldn't astronomers have noticed something like that?

So sleep peacefully. The Swiss are not about to blow up the world. They own too much of it.

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