Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The hype is over, let the physics begin

So after physicists today managed to guide a beam of protons around the 27 km Large Hadron Collider (LHC) it seems like the world didn't end. But after all the wide ranging press coverage I am not sure if I wish it probably did.
(photo credit: CERN)

There is no doubt that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a marvelous machine that will possibly shed light on what gives particles mass or even breath life into theories such as a "sypersymmetric" world, a theory which predicts a new array of heavy particles that mirror those of the standard model. It is also a magnificent machine in terms of the scale of the engineering, guiding protons 100 m underground at near the speed of light as they whizz around at temperatures colder than space itself to collide in detectors the size of cathedrals.

But there is also a chance that the LHC will see nothing. Some argue that this could be an even more interesting result, but I doubt the politicians will concur. Costing around $10bn the LHC doesn't come cheap. I know some researchers in other areas of physics such as in condensed matter physics who would scoff at the huge price. It also probably wont provide any directly applicable spin-off technologies. But what it will do is ask fundamental questions about the constituents of matter which push back the barrier of our ignorance, and that is worthwhile enough. As Robert Wilson, the first director of Fermilab (The US center for particle physics) said when he was asked by Congress to justify spending millions of dollars on a particle accelerator, “it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.”

The media coverage of the LHC has been quite incredible, something that I have never experienced in physics before. No doubt they have caught on to the numerous lawsuits thrown at CERN to stop it from operating. Ranging from a lawsuit filed at a US district court in Hawaii to an injunction sought from the European Court of Human Rights. This also gives the press enough ammunition from researchers who say that turning it on will cause the end of the world.

Although this nonsense is usually the realm of the Sun, which we all come to expect, but it has also creept into almost all the more respectable papers. Today The Telegraph had on its front page, "If you are reading this at 8.30... then Stephen Hawking was right." No doubt Stephen Hawking probably said it is impossible for the LHC to create a black hole and that is why we are still here. But it's a shame that the LHC is such a spectacular enough machine not to warrant such nonsense. It is probably a sign of our culture that to get a science story on the front page it has to be something which will directly be a threat to our lives. My main problem with this headline was that the LHC wasn't even performing collisions today, and it wont even be doing them at full energy (14 TeV) until March next year, so why wouldn't we still be here?

It is probably on the whole good that physics is being put at the front pages and on the news bulletins (it was lead story on the nightly news in the UK; the second news item was the onset of recession in the euro zone). But when its focus is on the end of the world and doomsday scenarios -- probably what most people will take away -- rather than the science, then it makes you wonder if it is worth it.

Probably the most humorous story about the LHC was in The Sun itself. After reading their story, it seems like they had properly understood that the doomsday scenarios are indeed nonsense and poked their usual fun at it. They latched onto the "LHC rap" that first appeared on YouTube around a month ago. They stated that boffins "have worried sceptics further - by posting a RAP SONG about the procedure on YouTube. " Supposedly the "procedure" is what the LHC how the LHC will work, nonsense, but good fun all the same. I emailed Kate McAlpine who made the video to ask when she made of all the press coverage of her rap, it seems like she had obviously learned a thing or two from her time as a CERN press contact.