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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Physicists have some serious grant-writing mojo.

Those who maintain an interest in high energy physics* are aware of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. For those who are less in the know, that's the big scientific gadget that some people thought would spawn a world-destroying black hole. What you may not know is that the LHC is perhaps going to be involved in the most bizarre experiment I've ever heard of:

More than a year after an explosion of sparks, soot and frigid helium shut it down, the world's biggest and most expensive physics experiment, known as the Large Hadron Collider, is poised to start up again. In December, if all goes well, protons will start smashing together in an underground racetrack outside Geneva in a search for forces and particles that reigned during the first trillionth of a second of the Big Bang.

Then it will be time to test one of the most bizarre and revolutionary theories in science. I'm not talking about extra dimensions of space-time, dark matter or even black holes that eat the Earth. No, I'm talking about the notion that the troubled collider is being sabotaged by its own future. A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.


He [Holger Bech Nielsen, one of the researchers proposing this hypothesis] agreed that skepticism would be in order. After all, most big science projects, including the Hubble Space Telescope, have gone through a period of seeming jinxed. At CERN, the beat goes on: Last weekend the French police arrested a particle physicist who works on one of the collider experiments, on suspicion of conspiracy with a North African wing of al Qaeda.

Nielsen and Ninomiya have proposed a kind of test: that CERN engage in a game of chance, a "card-drawing" exercise using perhaps a random-number generator to discern bad luck from the future. If the outcome was sufficiently unlikely, say drawing the one spade in a deck with 100 million hearts, the machine would either not run at all, or only at low energies unlikely to find the Higgs.

Leaving aside the obvious mind-bending possibility that this hypothesis is correct, there's the simply amazing fact that physicists manage to get nine billion in funding for a research project and yet, simultaneously, feel comfortable talking about it not working because of interference from the future. You just have to love that kind of chutzpah.**

And, come to think of it, maybe there's room here for sociologists! It isn't that I'm having a hard time finishing grad school, it's that my tremendous and awe-inspiring future success is rippling backwards in time to keep me in grad school! Yeah, that's it!

Man, why didn't I think of that before?

* And I mean, hell, who doesn't?

** In fairness it isn't clear that the LHC is actually going to attempt an experiment to test this notion- to the extent that a test is even possible- but still!

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Blogger TDEC said...

This is the best thing about physics and physicists both - whenever you think that scifi is crazy, behold science.

Friday, October 23, 2009 7:05:00 AM  
Blogger Marf said...

@ TDEC: I'd still put this in scifi. There's never been any proof that anything ripples back in time.

Though it does make me question the sanity of these scientists. I think they should be allowed to see the surface a bit more often!

Friday, October 23, 2009 11:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is seriously impressive: most of the grant projects I've worked on (see Grant Writing Confidential for more) don't have anything nearly so interesting happen. Or not happen, as the case may be.

Sunday, November 08, 2009 7:28:00 PM  

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