Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
And it’s time for more Tales From the 21st Century-our occasional look at the scientific and technological advances that are raising the bar on reality, turning science fiction into science fact. Tonight we’ll delve into microscopic black holes, the creation of exotic matter called strangelets and indirect evidence of time travel. Yes, time travel, as we highlight some quantum leaps in quantum physics that are uncovering the very nature of reality itself.
And it all begins right here on Long Island, at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In a history-making experiment, scientists whizzed gold atoms in opposite directions around BNL’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, just a hair shy of the speed of light. The resulting collision was hot-like, 4 trillion degrees Celsius hot, or about 40 times as hot as ground zero in a supernova hot-so hot that the protons and neutrons in the gold nuclei melted, liberating the quarks and gluons that compose them, creating a hot liquid soup called a quark gluon plasma.
This is a scientific first. No one has ever done this before. And they found that “bubbles” which formed within this hot soup may internally disobey the so-called “mirror symmetry” that normally characterizes the interactions of quarks and gluons. So why do we care?
Think of symmetry in terms of handedness, with quarks-for example-being right handed and gluons being left handed. It’s this symmetry that allows some chemical interactions and prevents others. The presence of the soup bubbles support the theory that quark/gluon symmetry was thrown off in the violent moments after the big bang, accounting for the prevalence of matter over antimatter-resulting in all of the ordinary visible matter in the universe, including you and me and the radio you’re hearing me on. So scientists have actually taken a significant step in explaining our very existence.
As BNL’s Dr. Steven Vigdor said in a recent New York Times article about the breakthrough:
“A lot of physics sounds like science fiction. There is a lot of speculation on what happened in the early universe. The amazing thing is that we have this chance to test any of this.”
Amazing indeed, because another test involving another collider designed to achieve another breakthrough in quantum physics isn’t going nearly as well-namely the quest to find a fabled particle called a Higgs boson, which has been predicted to exist and would help further explain the origin of mass in the universe. It has since been dubbed “the God Particle.”
Proving the existence of the Higgs boson is such a big deal to physicists that they built the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator to find it, the Large Hadron Collider—or LHC-in Switzerland. Physicists are really jazzed about this machine. I mean REALLY. Just listen to everyone’s favorite pop-scientist, Michio Kaku:
“God, by whatever signs or symbols you ascribe to the deity, this machine will take us as close as humanly possible to his or her greatest creation, Genesis. This is a genesis machine. This machine will recreate some of the nuclear fire that gave birth to the heavens and the earth.”
Well, those modest expectations were apparently too much for the LHC, because shortly after they juiced it up in September 2008, an energy surge vaporized some cables coupling two of the machine’s enormous electromagnets, shutting the thing down. They got it going again in December of ’09 for a brief test run before another scheduled shutdown, and it went back online again just this week, though only at half power to accommodate continued repairs.
These problems come as welcome news to many people who fear that the collider is nothing more than a doomsday machine, threatening to kill us all by creating microscopic black holes and some neat-sounding things called “strangelets.” But others see these setbacks as indirect evidence of nothing less than time travel.
Let’s start with the black holes. The reality is that the collider COULD potentially create black holes, as many as one a second. But they would be infinitesimally tiny-one thousandth of a proton big-and emit more radiation then they could consume, evaporating within a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. And even if that isn’t the case, and the teeny suckers are somehow stable, most would be traveling fast enough to escape the Earth’s gravity. Of those trapped here, they would be so small that they could travel through a solid block of iron wide enough to cover the distance from the Earth to the moon and not hit anything. And even if they did, the universe would come to its natural end before these tiny black holes could suck in even one milligram of Earth. As far as I’m concerned, that classifies as “no danger.”
As for “strangelets,” they’re weird little hypothetical quarks that could conceivably co-opt surrounding particles, causing a chain-reaction that converts the Earth and everyone on it into a ball of equally strange matter-kind of like the Genesis Wave from The Wrath of Khan, only without the benefit of a messianic Spock for your troubles. The problem is that strangelets are more likely to form at energies lower than those created by the Large Hadron Collider—so, if it was going to happen, one of the existing, weaker colliders would have turned us into strangelet food long ago.
Now what about the claims of time travel? Well, those possibilities are intriguing.
About a year before the LHC went online, physicists Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya floated a series of papers about the collider’s quest to find the Higgs boson, saying things like this:
“Since LHC will produce particles of a mathematically new type… i.e., the Higgs particles, there is potentially a chance to find unseen effects, such as on influence going from future to past.”
They go on to write:
“It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck… One could even almost say that we have a model for God, (and) He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.”
In trying to wrap your mind around this, it’s tempting to think of God or Fate or Time or Whatever leaping Sam Beckett back to September 2008 to sabotage the Large Hardron Collider, stopping the hubristic fools from throwing the switch that will trigger non-reality. But that’s not quite it. In this scenario, the nature of reality is the chief inhibiting factor, and needs no human help.
Instead the physicists posit that nature so detests the Higgs boson that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one-time traveling do-gooders need not apply, thank you very much.
And so far these predictions seem to have panned out. The collider has not managed to work right since day one. And though it’s running now, current plans won’t have it operating at full power until 2013. So it’ll be a while before we’re all reduced to lumps of strange matter.
In the meantime, consider this: If Nielsen and Ninomiya are right, and the future IS influencing the past, then what that means is that every time the Large Hadron Collider fails, it could mean some future force is skewing us into an alternate reality where the Higgs boson particle was never created. Which is kind of unsettling, but fine by me, considering the alternative.
Antimatter, traveling in anti-time, working together to keep reality real. Science Fiction? NO LONGER! Now, it’s just one of the many miraculous Tales From the 21st Century!