Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winner and MIT physicist is one of many scientists looking forward to what the Large Hadron Collider will reveal. (Credit: Nuño Dominguez)
On Wednesday, the world’s largest particle collider will go online. With all the bells and whistles now attached, the $9-billion, 16.5-mile long beast of a machine, dubbed the Large Hadron Collider, will soon be smashing protons under conditions mimicking the chaos after the Big Bang. After analyzing the crashes, scientists expect to find evidence as to what holds the universe together.
But not everyone is excited. Amid the celebration are whispers of certain doom. Scientists involved in the project are even receiving death threats from anonymous citizens hoping to stop the collider from going live. One of the recipients is Nobel Prize-winning physicist and MIT professor Frank Wilczek, who explained the collider’s promise and controversy to Publico reporter and Science Metropolis correspondent Nuño Dominguez.
Q: WHAT NEW INFORMATION MAY COME FROM THE COLLIDER?
A: Our modern theory of fundamental physics, called the standard model, is very well tested, but it’s based on a very strange idea that hasn’t been tested properly. It’s the idea that what we perceive as empty space is, in reality, not empty at all. Instead, empty space is full of something called Higg’s condensate, which gives mass to particles and slows things down.
An analogy I like to make is if we were fish, and we were always in the water, we wouldn’t think the water has anything special. We would think about it as empty space. [Human beings] are immersed in something like an ocean. The step that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] will take is that it will tell us what this sea is made out of.
Q: HOW WILL THE RESULTS IMPACT EVERYDAY LIFE?
A: It’s an opportunity to expand your appreciation of nature, of God if you’d like. One definition of religion is believing in things you don’t see. Well, here we are presenting you with lots of things you don’t see in everyday life and giving you ideas that the world is a bigger and better place that appears in the surface.
Q: THERE HAS BEEN BUZZ THAT THE COLLIDER COULD CREATE DANGEROUS BLACK HOLES. ARE THESE ARGUEMNTS WELL-FOUNDED?
A: I don’t think any sensible researchers have proposed that [a black hole] could swallow the earth. It’s very, very speculative that some teeny-weeny black holes could be formed at the LHC. What has to be emphasized is that the word black hole used for these objects really gives a wrong impression. It’s just like saying elephants are animals and amoeba are animals too. It’s true that they’re both animals, but they have very different properties and if you worry about getting trampled by an amoeba, you are thinking the wrong way.
It’s similar here. Black holes that could be produced at the LHC are smaller than a proton. They are really, really small and furthermore they are really, really unstable. You shouldn’t think of gigantic objects that will swallow the earth that people would helplessly fall into, it’s not that at all. It’s just highly unstable objects that are not so different from other elementary particles.
Q: IS IT TRUE THAT YOU HAVE RECEIVED DEATH THREATS ABOUT THE START OF THE LHC?
A: Yes it is. I believe it’s a mentally unstable individual. This has been going on for many months. He has called other people. He is suggesting that we are reckless and this is a large conspiracy to endanger the earth because either we don’t care or we actually we want to destroy the earth because we are just evil.
Q: DO YOU THINK HE IS A SCIENTIST?
Q: DO YOU THINK THIS REPRESESENTS AN OPPOSITION TO SCIENCE?
A: There has always been, at some level, fear of the unknown associated with science. I think that in modern times it was triggered by the development of nuclear weapons, which are scary and very powerful. There are all sorts of frightening stories about biological weapons, chemical weapons. They are legitimate concerns and it gets mixed up with genetic engineering and climate change, biotechnology.
I don’t want to destroy the world either. I have a very happy life. I have a very nice family and care about my children. You know thousand of people are working at CERN and very, very few of them are mad scientist or evil people. They’re normal people with families and concerns about the future
Q: WHERE WILL YOU BE WHEN THE COLLIDER STARTS RUNNING?
A: [Laughs.] I’ll be in bed probably. It would be a milestone for the machine, but in terms of new discoveries in physics, they are not going to happen right away. It’s going to be a process.
Q: WHAT IF THE COLLIDER CONTRADICTS YOUR THEORIES?
A: I’m hoping for the best, but it wouldn’t be science if nature doesn’t get the last word. Part of what make this exciting is the possibility that it could not work. I’ve already gotten the Nobel Prize so, [laughs,] I like that none of this would take that away, but it would be really nice to have these later ideas confirmed and then we can build on them.