May 12, 2004

Will A.L.I.C.E. "Swallow Up The Earth"?

[UPDATE: Needless to say, A.L.I.C.E did not, in fact, swallow up the Earth. - LR]

Both the fact and fiction about CERN's soon-to-be-completed Large Ion Collider, or "ALICE," seem as strange as anything Lewis Carroll put to print in a chemical-indiced haze; some are concerned that in theory, our planet may end up literally "falling down the rabbithole."

The "Wonderland" metaphor extends to CERN's own press on the project, where Carroll's young protagonist appears frequently on the site's pages. From the CERN Project site:
The ALICE Collaboration is building a dedicated heavy-ion detector to exploit the unique physics potential of nucleus-nucleus interactions at LHC energies. Our aim is to study the physics of strongly interacting matter at extreme energy densities, where the formation of a new phase of matter, the quark-gluon plasma, is expected.

The existence of such a phase and its properties are key issues in QCD for the understanding of confinement and of chiral-symmetry restoration. For this purpose, we intend to carry out a comprehensive study of the hadrons, electrons, muons and photons produced in the collision of heavy nuclei. Alice will also study proton-proton collisions both as a comparison with lead-lead collisions in physics areas where Alice is competitive with other LHC experiments
A lone voice in the wilderness, James Blodgett of the Albany, NY-based Risk Evaluation Forum, is afraid that ALICE may potentially have a rather nontrivial "Doomsday" flaw:
There is a risk that a physics experiment scheduled for 2007 may destroy the earth.

Recent developments in string theory suggest that mini-black holes may be created in the next generation of particle colliders. The possibility that the upcoming Large Ion Collider at CERN might produce mini-black holes is predicted by several articles cited in our "references" section. Go there. Their idea is that gravity might be much stronger than expected (We calculate up to 10^33 times stronger) at very small scales if the inverse square law becomes an inverse hypercube law at small scales due to extra dimensions.

Extra dimensions at sub-atomic scales are a strong prediction of string theory. String theory is considered fairly plausible by many physicists. The authors who predict mini-black hole production expect these holes to evaporate via Hawking radiation. But Hawking radiation has never been seen nor tested. It is based on a quantum theory which is widely accepted, but also widely regarded as strange. If mini-black holes are created and do not evaporate they could implode the earth.
Understandbly, both sides of the argument qualify as arcane topics - even if the potential consequences could shall I say...spectacular. Very Strange stuff, indeed. J.R. Labbe of the Star-Telegram [registration required to access online articles] says,
Founded 50 years ago, CERN is (in English) the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the world's largest particle physics center. This is where really, really smart people study what matter is made of and what holds it together. To do that, you need a really, really huge particle accelerator.

And that is what has Blodgett worried. Because the CERN scientists are getting ready to throw the switch on one honking big collider.

"The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) [a.k.a. the ALICE Project] is a particle accelerator which will probe deeper into matter than ever before," says the CERN Web site. "Due to switch on in 2007, it will ultimately collide beams of protons at an energy of 14 TeV. Beams of lead nuclei will be also accelerated, smashing together with a collision energy of 1150 TeV.

"A TeV is a unit of energy used in particle physics. 1 TeV is about the energy of motion of a flying mosquito. What makes the LHC so extraordinary is that it squeezes energy into a space about a million million times smaller than a mosquito."
More discussion on "ALICE Swallowing the Earth"?

Star-Telegram: "If The Earth Disappears, He Was Right"
Blodgett's own posting on SciScoop
A related Black Holes Forum message on
CERN Tutorial: "What Is Quark Matter?"

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