Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Two days ago, Yahoo! News ran a story about troubles at CERN, the high-energy physics lab in Switzerland.  It seems like the Large Hadron Collider has been having problems.  The LHC is designed to accelerate protons to incredible velocities -- 99.9999991% of the speed of light -- and then slam them into targets.  At that speed, the energy of the collision generates cascades of subatomic particles, which then can be analyzed as a way of getting a picture of the deepest structure of matter.  In particular, physicists are trying to prove the existence of the Higgs boson -- the "God Particle," that gives everything the property of having mass.

But something keeps getting in the way of the beam, draining its energy and resulting in less spectacular crashes.  Scientists think it's probably dust; at that velocity, even ultramicroscopic dust particles could cause problems.  This is "one of the major known limitations for the performance of the Large Hadron Collider," according to Tobias Baer, one of CERN's physicists.  Scientists at the LHC have documented over 10,000 cases of unexplained energy loss, some of them so great that the beam automatically shut down (it has a failsafe in case of intensity fluctuations).

Okay, so far, so good.  But then the media got involved.

The headline of the article referenced above was, "UFOs Disrupting Search For The God Particle."  And I'm thinking, "UFOs?  What the hell?"  Then, in the article, they coyly define "UFOs" as meaning, in this case, "Unidentified Falling Objects."  Of course, that's not what anyone thought when they saw the headline, so once again we have the media slyly giving the wrong impression in a headline to get you to click the link -- a phenomenon I've commented on before.

Then the woo-woos got involved.

Here are just a few quotes I found in posts on the phenomenon, from a variety of woo-woo websites.  It's only a sampling, and represents the number I could read before my brain turned to cream-of-wheat.

"It isn't a coincidence that stuff keeps getting in the way.  It's the universe's way of protecting itself.  If the God Particle is produced, it could make a chain reaction that would generate another universe inside this one, and that would tear this one to pieces.  Or make a black hole that would swallow everything.  The LHC is never going to succeed, because it would destroy the universe if it did."

"Odd that the Large Hadron Collider keeps shutting off just as scientists get close to discovering the God Particle.  Remember in the Bible that God didn't want Moses to see His face.  The same will be true here.  Those physicists keep trying to find the God Particle, but whenever they get close, God will stop them.  There are some mysteries that will remain mysteries."

"There's something they're not telling us here.  Don't tell me that these Ph.D.s in physics don't suspect that something fishy is going on.  10,000 instances of 'something' interfering with the beam, and they think it's dust?  I'm not buying it.  They're on to something, and it's something big -- no way would they have 10,000 times of the beam being damaged and just shrug their shoulders and say, 'It's dust.'  Mark my words: we're on the verge of something big and dangerous."

"Its [sic] not surprising that the Large Hardon [sic] Collider is scheduled to reboot in 2012.  The title of the article say's [sic] it all.  The big catastrophe is scheduled in 2012, when the Large Hardon [sic] Collider will be the final step that will bring the extraterrestrials here to keep us from destroying ourselve's [sic], and the New Age the Mayans predicted will begin."

Okay.  I'll give you my responses in a moment, after I clean up the coffee I spit all over the monitor when I read about the "Large Hardon Collider."

Better now.  In any case, I find it interesting how fascinated the woo-woos are with the LHC.  I think it goes beyond just the wonder that most of us feel when we read this stuff -- the thought of, "Wow, how complex and beautiful the universe is!"  What explains the desperate curiosity they seem to feel about this particular scientific tool?

I think part of it is the nickname of the particle that the scientists are after.  You have to admit that "the God Particle" does have a certain cachet.  The nickname is the fault of physicist Leon Lederman, who coined it in the title of his book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What Is the Question?  Lederman, who has many times expressed regret for coining the nickname, said, "I wanted to call it 'the goddamn particle' but my editors wouldn't let me."

So, there's that.  Somehow, "physicists are trying to generate the Higgs boson" has become morphed into "physicists are trying to create god."  Thus, I suppose, being the power of names.

Then, there's the fear most of us feel when there's something we don't understand.  And frankly, almost none of us understand what the LHC is really trying to do.  I have a B.S. in physics, and when I read scholarly papers on subatomic physics, my eyes cross.  (I found that even the Wikipedia article on the Higgs boson is beyond my understanding, which was a little humbling.)  So, what are the scientists doing, over there in Switzerland?  We're not really sure.  And for a lot of people, "not really sure" means "potentially dangerous," and for those of us who spent too much time watching science fiction movies, "scientists doing potentially dangerous stuff" translates to "starting a chain reaction that will destroy the universe, or at the very least generate a monster that will eat Tokyo."

Now, mind you, I'm not saying that it's impossible that something could go badly wrong, and I'm not even sure what that would cause.  But I'm also fairly certain that the physicists themselves would be strongly in favor of not destroying the universe, being that they live in it and all.  So I'm guessing that if they really thought that what they were doing was going to generate a black hole that would swallow the Earth, they would stop.

Anyhow, that's our news from the Large Hadron Collider.  (Hadron, you'll note.  Hadron.)  I will be eager to see what discoveries the LHC generates, and I hope that they fix their dust problem.  Being rather a failure at housekeeping, I know how annoying dust can be, and they should be thankful that they don't have pets there at CERN, because once you add dog hair into the mix, it's all over.



  2. I buy sics in 50 kilo bags now, keep 'em here by the computer in a bucket with a scoop. The 'beauty' of the net is that we now know just how illiterate that un-assuming passer-by really is.
    The CERN facility is truly an engorging erection, but my beef with the name is more subtle: Reminds me of when I bought a Sears 'Best' Large Ant Farm, It was fair-sized, I'll
    admit, but my species (avg lngth-2,2 cm.) couldn't fit through the tiny holes between rooms.
    I share your glazed-over reaction to attempting to follow the job-description for this goddamn particle. When the dense Greek alphabet-soup part starts even before scroll-down I usually just pay the bill and check out right away.
    So yeah, dust. This is bound to happen when
    you're working with the only model of a cutting-edge machine. At least the press isn't asphyxiating Einstein on this one.
    Anyway, Godron, (-sp?) there is a subscribe by email link here, but it doesn't differentiate between replies and simple additional comments. I'm fairly sure the reply feature is deliberately left out, to inflate page-hits as victims do a maddening page-by-page re-search
    for reactions to their thoughts.
    Check my recent Xanga posts for a reminder of what you may be missing. www,xanga,com/jsolberg. (commas deliberate)

  3. The truth is that Tobias Baer himself talked of UFOs ...

    T 86.9 Mi 18:50 30.22: 020
    LHC Machine Protection challenges for 2011 — ∙Tobias Bär
    — CERN, Genf, Schweiz — Universität Hamburg, Deutschland
    The Large Hadron Collider has an unprecedented stored beam energy
    of up to 362MJ per beam. In 2011, 100MJ could be reached. In this
    talk, crucial machine protection challenges for 2011 and beyond are
    discussed. Especially, UFOs as potential show-stoppers are addressed.
    UFOs or ”Unidentified Falling Objects” were first observed in July 2010
    and are since then a major source of emergency beam dumps. They are
    prospectively micrometer sized dust particles that lead to fast beam
    losses when they interact with the beam. The state of knowledge and
    mitigation strategies are presented.