Okay, so, beginning tomorrow, the Large Hadron Collider will go online. Oh, yeah, and possibly the world will be destroyed. So, you know, keep your weekend open.
The LHC is the world's largest particle accelerator complex. If the phrase "particle accelerator" sounds familiar, it's because that's what the Ghostbusters used to catch ghosts, so right away I'm preparing for an attack by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the LHC is housed in a gigantic complex under the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva.
The collider will simulate conditions less than a billionth of a second after the big bang, by smashing protons together at enormous energies. Physicists hope to resolve long-standing questions, such as why particles have mass and whether space has hidden extra dimensions.
That's basically the simplest explanation I could find that doesn't involve complex physics like Higgs boson, TeV protons, or supersymmetric particles. That's what Wikipedia is for, kiddies. Look it up.
So why is it dangerous? Well, some people believe that slamming together high-energy particles in an attempt recreate conditions post-big bang might also create some pretty freaky effects.
Like what? Well how about a micro black hole? I think we can all agree that a micro black hole in Switzerland might work out bad for us. Not scary enough for you? How about a Strangelet? Put as simply as I know how, a Strangelet is a particle of strange matter. The danger is that, hypothetically, if a Strangelet were to come into contact with some ordinary matter, like, say, the Earth, it would convert the ordinary matter to strange matter. I know your next question and the answer is no, you cannot live on strange matter.
From the Wiki article:
Scenario is as follows: one strangelet hits a nucleus, catalyzing its immediate conversion to strange matter. This liberates energy, producing a larger, more stable strangelet, which in turn hits another nucleus, catalyzing its conversion to strange matter. In the end, all the nuclei of all the atoms of Earth are converted, and Earth is reduced to a hot, large lump of strange matter.
This is not a concern for strangelets in cosmic rays because they are produced far from Earth and have had time to decay to their ground state, which is predicted by most models to be positively charged, so they are electrostatically repelled by nuclei, and would rarely merge with them. But high-energy collisions could produce negatively charged strangelet states which live long enough to interact with the nuclei of ordinary matter.
Not to worry, though, because a group of scientists have filed and injunction to stop the activation of the LHC until all safety concerns are addressed and we have a plan to defeat any giant Marshmallow Men that may be created. Oh, wait, they lost that case, according to this article. The article goes on to show how anyone worried about the possible apocalyptic properties of the LHC is foolish. I can dig it, but these are the same guys who discovered Strangelets in the first place, so I'm not convinced.