Utah scientists: Atom smasher won't destroy Earth

Published September 10, 2008 12:00 am
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Despite warnings by some that the Earth could be swallowed by a black hole today, the long-awaited test of a high-energy particle collider will go forward with the support of most of the scientific community.

That includes Utah, where scientists are excited about the discoveries that could be made, realizing our fundamental understanding of the universe's fabric could change.

The Large Hadron Collider is a multibillion-dollar atom smasher with nearly 17 miles of tunnels beneath the French-Swiss border. It's run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research and will allow an international team of scientists to observe the universe's tiniest particles and come close to recreating the Big Bang, the theory that a colossal explosion created the universe.

"This will have considerable impact. There are some lingering, nagging questions that we have not been able to answer, so it's exciting to have the chance to look for them," said Carleton DeTar, a professor of physics at the University of Utah.

He is among the Utah physicists who don't think a black hole that could potentially swallow the Earth will form, as some scientists have charged.

Shane Larson, an assistant professor of physics at Utah State University, says there have been "countless calculations by hundreds of scientists" showing that if miniature black holes do form, they'll escape harmlessly into space. Skeptic scientists argue that those black holes could get stuck in Earth's gravity and sucked into the center of the Earth, where they could eat the planet from the inside out.

"I'm pretty sure hundreds of us didn't do this wrong," Larson said. "As scientists we're often not good at communicating about things that can cause a lot of fear, but these fears are unfounded."

Ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays hit the Earth daily, with no disastrous consequence.

"That alleviates a lot of the concern because we can't even begin to hope to reach the energy that nature is already reaching," he said.

Paolo Gondolo, an associate professor of physics at the U., looks forward to the research on "super symmetry" - a theory that each particle has a superpartner, which could lead to a better understanding of dark matter, which pervades the universe and is still a mystery to physicists. The collider experiments also could answer questions about why gravity is weaker than other interactions, such as electricity, and it could prove new dimensions exist in space and time.

While excited, the scientists are patient. They realize the collider won't start doing its actual experiments for several weeks or months, and beyond that, it could take years to process data.

Either way, it could fundamentally change particle physics and our understanding of how atoms are formed and interact.

"Either the discovery will be right in front of the scientists' eyes, or there will have to be adjustments and computations before we learn anything," Gondolo said.

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