LHC milestone re-ignites doomsday talk

Image: ALICE collision
This computer graphic shows one of the first collisions recorded between two lead ions at the Large Hadron Collider’s top energy. The energy in the center-of-mass system is approximately a quadrillion electron-volts. (Credit: CERN / ALICE Collaboration)

The Large Hadron Collider set another record for particle-smashing energy levels this week – which set off another round of hyped-up rumblings about the end of the world.

Before the LHC’s startup in 2008, the Internet was set abuzz with worries that high-energy collisions could create globe-gobbling black holes or cosmos-wrecking strangelets. Protests were mounted, lawsuits were filed, and physicists at Europe’s CERN particle physics center had to explain in depth why the nightmare scenarios were nothing more than nightmares. Once the collider went into operation, the lawsuits were dismissed and the hand-wringing settled down.

Now the world’s largest collider is operating at near its design limits, and this week, CERN reported that lead-ion collisions in the LHC’s ALICE detectorreached energies beyond a quadrillion electron-volts – a level also known as 1 peta-electron-volt, or 1 PeV.

“This energy is that of a bumblebee hitting us on the cheek on a summer day. But the energy is concentrated in a volume that is approximately 10 -27 (a billion-billion-billion) times smaller,” Jens Jørgen Gaardhøje, professor at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and head of the Danish research group within the ALICE experiment, said in a news release.

At first blush, a quadrillion electron-volts sounds like a huge ramp-up from 13 trillion to 14 trillion electron-volts, or 13 to 14 TeV, the traditionally quoted figures for the high end of the LHC’s collision energy. That’s what set off the doomsayers. In the weeks leading up to the ALICE collisions, there was a drumbeat of postings claiming that “CERN LIED” and warning that 1-PeV smashups would have catastrophic consequences.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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