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October 18, 2009

The Future Ate My Particles



Interesting NYTimes article about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. The LHC, you'll recall, is supposed to accelerate particles to incredible speeds and then crash them together, demonstrating in a very scientific way what little boys with toy cars know instinctively: it's great fun to smash things together, and if you can get an explosion out of it, well, so much the better.

The LHC is the biggest and most expensive science project ever. Scientists believe that the collisions will provide (at a macro level) a simulation of the first moments of the universe, and (at a micro level) particles known as the Higgs boson. There is also a small theoretical possibility that the experiment will generate a black hole that will destroy all life on Earth and swallow up the solar system, but hey - you want to make an omelette, you got to take a few chances.

Between Sept. 10 and Sept. 19, 2008, the LHC was powered up and operational, until an explosion in the supermagnets and power couplings shut the thing down. Since then the LHC has endured a series of unexpected technical difficulties.

Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan — two brilliant scientists, affiliated with prestigious institutes — have published papers (paper1 , paper2) suggesting that maybe the problems getting the LHC running again aren't technical - maybe the future is interfering with the effort.

From the NY Times: This malign influence from the future, they argue, could explain why the United States Superconducting Supercollider, also designed to find the Higgs boson, was canceled in 1993 after billions of dollars had already been spent, an event so unlikely that Dr. Nielsen calls it an “anti-miracle.”

There are two theoretical scenarios which Nielsen and Ninomiya suggest.

In the first case of the Higgs and the collider, it is as if something is going back in time to keep the universe from being hit by a bus. Although just why the Higgs would be a catastrophe is not clear. If we knew, presumably, we wouldn’t be trying to make one. In this scenario, which admittedly requires time travel, our future scientists are trying to keep our present scientists from blowing up the universe.

In the second case, when events in the current reality present a choice - A or B - both choices occur, each in their own new quantum reality. And so in some realities, which are really probability densities, the black hole did swallow the solar system - we just don't know about that because we're not living on that thread. In the thread we are living in, the happy circumstance of the magnet failure allowed us to continue, and in the future we realize the tremendous risk and take steps to ensure the project fails.

Wow.

People may say, how does all this theoretical physics really improve my life? I mean, scientists in the Apollo program gave us Velcro and Tang back in the day, but what has the lab done for me lately?

The young boys with the toy cars would know how to use this bold new theory.
In the 60's we said: the dog ate my homework.
In the 90's we said: Windows ate my homework.
In the 00's we said: the Internet ate my homework. (the netscuse)
In the 10's they'll say: the future ate my homework.

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