Particle accelerators: Modern marvels or doomsday devices?
Scientific advancements are always exciting, but when the science involved is more than we learned in our high school and college courses, sometimes, those thrilling discoveries can seem a bit intimidating. Genetic modification, nanotechnology, and particle accelerators all fall into a category of science that is simultaneously on the cutting edge of reality and, for many, the cusp of science fiction. Particle accelerators are especially fascinating. They have a multitude of uses, but the imagination of some people has taken those uses far beyond their actual limits. It’s easy to fear what we don’t yet understand, but is there any need to be afraid?
Let’s start with the basics: What do particle accelerators do? As the name implies, they accelerate particles — obviously, but what does that mean? Particles can be “charged” with energy, often through the use of variable electromagnetic fields within a controlled environment. These electrokinetic (or electrodynamic) accelerators are the basis for most of the large scale accelerators around the world, which are what most people think of when the term “particle accelerator” is mentioned. Some accelerators use static electric fields and variable voltage to charge up the particles instead. Odds are good that you’ve interacted with some of these particle accelerators yourself. Examples include cathode ray tubes in old TV and computer monitors and Van de Graaff generators, which many of us had the opportunity to experiment with in grade school.
When it comes to the confusion and mild panic, no one is freaking out about their old CRT monitors collapsing into a singularity or their child getting sucked into a sudden unstable hole in the fabric of space-time while playing with a generator in science class. The uncertainty comes from the large-scale particle accelerators and their ilk. There’s more to electrokinetic particle accelerators than meets the public eye, and knowing the span of their capabilities is an essential starting point. Firstly, not every electrodynamic accelerator is the size of a neighborhood. X-ray generators and particle therapy machines for cancer treatment are both small enough to fit inside an exam room, and we interact with them every day. Voltage multipliers are another example of low-energy particle accelerators.
Supercolliders and black holes
Most of the myth and mysticism surrounding particle accelerators come from the large-scale colliders like the Tevatron at Fermilab or CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. These particle accelerators are as massive as they are powerful, capable of creating collisions up to 13 tera electron Volts (TeV). These facilities provide scientists with the environment needed to study physics on an infinitesimally small scale. Strange forms of matter, subatomic particles, and the behavior of baryonic and non-baryonic matter under myriad conditions can all be analyzed thanks to particle accelerators. Physicists and cosmologists have attempted to simulate conditions shortly after the Big Bang, an experiment that requires massive amounts of energy. One application that has caused as much excitement as it has friction exists only in theory.
Can particle accelerators produce black holes? The answer: Technically, yes. If we assume that some aspects of superstring theory are correct, then it would be theoretically possible for the highest-powered supercolliders to produce small-scale black holes. However, before that thought snowballs too far, there are a few important details to note. First and most importantly, these theoretical black holes would be so small and so short-lived, they wouldn’t have the chance to do any harm, even if they could. Black holes, regardless of size, give off something called Hawking Radiation just by existing. Expelling the radiation eats away at the black hole, and unless it consumes enough matter to offset the emissions, the black hole disappears. How quickly the radiation dissipates the black hole depends on its size. The smaller the black hole, the faster it will poof out of existence. Any singularity created inside a particle accelerator would be so minuscule, it would quickly fizzle out.
Oh, the places we could go!
Let’s take a break from the terrifying to imagine the utterly preposterous: What if we had a particle accelerator the size of the solar system? This wild “what if” is the impossible dream of one physicist from Duke University, James Beacham, who currently works on the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The capabilities of the 16-mile particle accelerator aren’t enough for Beacham, who wants to view the simulated conditions of the early universe when it was just a speck of existence. Using the LHC, we can speculate what conditions were like when the universe was about the size of an apple. According to Beacham, “to understand what was going on the moment after the Big Bang, getting closer and closer to the moment itself, we need to achieve higher energies in collider experiments, and to do that we need to build larger collider experiments.”
To achieve high enough energies and observe what Beacham is after, he and his colleagues estimate they would need a collider at least the size of Neptune’s orbit. Aside from the fact that we lack the Star Trek-like technologies that would allow us to build something on such a large scale, space, believe it or not, isn’t cold enough for superconducting magnets to function. The LHC uses liquid helium to cool its magnets to a chilly 1.9 Kelvin. It’s unclear whether or not the nearby universe contains enough liquid helium to cool a collider the size of the solar system. Regardless of its infeasibility, Beacham stands by his pipe dream.
“If we were to build a particle collider around the outer edge of the Solar System, the knowledge we would gain—about the nature of gravity, of how quantum mechanics and general relativity fit together, about time travel, about what happened at the moment of the Big Bang, about whether our universe is just one of an almost infinite number in a multiverse—would so fundamentally alter our perception of reality, alter our relationship to nature, that this language, the understanding of the world, of humanity, of how anything happens at all, of our place in this universe, will seem so radically inadequate that a new kind of understanding would need to be invented to take its place.”