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Smashing Science

DW staff (sms)September 10, 2008

Europe's Center for Nuclear Research made scientific history when it successfully tested the world's largest particle collider on Wednesday. Some, however, are worried the machine may mean the end of the world.

A scientist looks at a model of the LHC tunnel
Scientists around the world are looking forward to information produced by the Large Hadron ColliderImage: picture alliance/dpa

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which was switched on at 09:30 CET on Wednesday, Sept. 10 after nearly two decades of construction to the tune of 6 billion Swiss francs (3.76 billion euros, $5.46 billion), will help scientists understand the material that makes up the universe, according to CERN (Center for Nuclear Research) spokesman and physicist James Gillies.

On Wednesday, a beam of protons was successfully fired all the way around a 17-mile tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border, traveling the full length of the LHC.

"We take a couple of particles, we throw them at each other, we see them smash into each other, we observe what happens and that allows us to test the way they interact with each and understand their behavior," he said.

The work being done 100 meters beneath the ground in the LHC at CERN is unique, Gillies added, meaning that world's particle physics community is looking to see what happens at the center.

Hubert Reeves, a French astro-physician, told the Swiss daily Le Matin that the invention could bring "unexpected results" that would change the world of particle physics forever.

"This machine will probably bring unexpected results that could turn particle physics on its head," Reeves said.

Doubts on the surface

Above ground photo of the CERN campus
Will the rest of the CERN labs be intact in the coming weeks?Image: picture alliance/dpa

Some scientists, like German chemistry professor Otto Roessler have expressed their doubts about the safety of the LHC. He said it's plausible that the black holes, small though they may be, could potentially "survive and grow exponentially and eat the planet from the inside."

He is so convinced that he has filed suit at an EU court in which he says CERN violates the right to life guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Tiny black holes

NASA illustration of a black hole shows light being drawn in from space
Any resulting black holes won't be big enough to end the world, scientists saidImage: NASA

But back at CERN, there are reassurances -- of a kind. While switching on the Large Hadron Collider may create black holes, they're sure to be harmless and are probably nothing new, said Gillies.

"There are theories out there that say perhaps the LHC can produce microscopic black holes, if the LHC can do it, then cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere can do it, and cosmic rays have been hitting the atmosphere since the earth existed," he said. "All you can say is maybe those theories are correct, but if they are, then microscopic black holes are quite harmless."

Beyond the possible Armageddon scenarios some fear will be produced at the center, more down-to-earth concerns about energy use at CERN also exist.

CERN has cost at least $10 billion (7.1 billion euros), and the electricity needed to power the LHG would be enough for the entire city of Geneva. Yves Preville, a local town councilor, said he's not sure money at CERN is being well spent.

A room full of computers at the CERN center
The center requires a large amount of computing power to analyze the data acquiredImage: AP

"The physics being done here is very futuristic physics, it won’t have any direct application to human well being," he said. "The beauty is we have been able to train a great number of physicists and mathematicians, for me this is a great value."

Part of human nature

Nevertheless, pure scientific research does have its supporters. Geneva resident Rudi Schoech said he believes expecting immediate benefits form CERN's research is unrealistic.

"It's certainly an enormous waste of money if you think you don’t need this kind of information, if you can't build anything from it," he said. "But I think it’s a very integral part of human nature, to look for things, to search for the origins of how things work."

Gillies said the part of human nature that works at discovering the unknown has led to inventions that are now essential parts of our everyday life.

The history of science is littered with scientists who say, you'll never find any use for this, and then, 100 years after they're dead we're using them," he said.