Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Saturday, September 06, 2008

How to Avoid Huge Ships

The title of this post is taken from a much-loved entrant some years back for the Diagram prize. This is the one awarded at the Frankfurt Book Fair for the weirdest book title. Books are nominated by publishers, who are however barred from nominating books they publish (otherwise they might tweak titles with a view to winning).

I was reminded of it by an amusing article in the Times last week on Big Bang Day. This of course is September 10th, when the scientists at CERN near Geneva switch on the largest machine ever constructed, the LHC or Large Hadron Collider. (How do you tell when a geek is excited? He gets a large hadron....) This is a particle accelerator 7 times more powerful than the current Big Banger, the Tevatron at Fermilab in the USA: winds protons up to pretty much lightspeed, smacks them into each other and generates a tiny analogue of the early universe. It's become a big story not just because journalists love record-breakers, but because some people have been worried that it might create a black hole that would suck us all into Switzerland. Now it's true that as they crank up the available energy in these machines their ability to create exotic things increases. They might indeed create a minute black hole, but the odds against its lasting long enough to swallow up even another proton from the beam are, as it were, astronomical. As any fan of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy will know, there is also a non-zero probability of a sperm whale's appearance in the LHC, and the odds of a long-lasting black hole are pretty similar. (Switching the machine on improves the odds of both, but not very much.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the Times. Now in today's Guardian there is an article describing the beams and collisions, and explaining that when running at full power the LHC will generate burts of 100 billion collisions per second, each with about the same energy as a flying mosquito. (Which is impressive when you think of the size of a proton and the size of a mosquito.) The Times on the other hand eschewed the mosquito simile and decsribed the LHC as recreating the conditions of the Big Bang by slamming together beans of protons "with the energy of two aiircaft carriers sailing into each other at 11 knots". Now that may or may not be the energy of one of the bursts of protons being whacked together (it certainly isn't 100 billion mosquitos, but a burst will be a lot less than a second). My amusement came when I thought that when you leave out all mention of the number of collisions per second, and especially of the fact that all this energy is being packed into a space smaller than an atom, you raise an obvious question. Instead of spending £2.6 billion on vacuum tubes and superconducting magnets, why didn't CERN just buy a couple of aircraft carriers and steam them into each other? ("Hard to starboard, Lieutenant. If we hit that other carrier we might create a black hole that would destroy the Earth.")


At 08 September, 2008 15:45, Blogger JoeinVegas said...

OMG, that's something I didn't even think of when I was floating around on those carriers. Sure glad the pilot was good and we didn't end the universe.

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