Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Big Bang Machine

I just read an interesting article about the world's largest particle accelerator/atom smasher underneath the Swiss-French border at Geneva. At 17 miles long this thing is a monster. Essentially scientists smash proton beams together at really high velocities then watch to see what happens.

Some people fear that these scientists could create a black hole and suck the entire Earth into it. I can't say one way or another how likely that possibility is, so I will just continue to pray that it doesn't happen.

A couple of things interested me about this article. First was that the link to the article from Yahoo! called the accelerator a "Big Bang Machine." That line made me wonder if scientists were trying to create a machine that would simulate the Big Bang itself; i.e., a machine that attempts to create time, space and matter. Now that would be interesting.

Of course, when I clicked on the link and saw the article I learned that they were talking about the particle accelerator that I already knew about. If you read carefully you will see that scientists are attempting to simulate "conditions nearing those after the Big Bang" (emphasis added), not the Big Bang itself. Still exciting stuff, but kind of a let down after the expectations engendered by the "Big Bang Machine" title.

Still, the article was fascinating. Scientists are trying to discover why anti-matter exists and whether they can find evidence for the theoretical Higgs boson, a particle that gives mass to other particles. The problem with particle physics, though, is that the movement of particles is unpredictable. Scientists can only speak in terms of probabilities when it comes to the motion/velocity of particles. So actually coordinating the collision of particles is pretty tough. Particles don't necessarily do what we want them to do.

These scientists overcame this problem by using "powerful superconducting magnets to force the two beams to cross, creating collisions and showers of particles." When I read this, two things came to mind:

(1) This seems to support the conclusion that even at the quantum level events are "caused." In other words, the scientists caused particles to move in the direction they wanted by using the magnets. It is still a matter of probability, but there does appear to be a cause/effect relationship. This seems to run afoul of people who argue that the universe does not require a cause by resorting to the fact that the initial moments of the universe were governed by quantum mechanics rather than Newtonian mechanics. Even in quantum mechanics events are still caused. I admittedly may be overreaching what the evidence from the magnets supports, here, as the article only contained limited information, but it was my intial impression. More specifics as to the methodology used by the scientists would confirm whether they actually helped cause a collision.

(2) If scientists needed a 17 mile long accelerator to get the beams "up to speed" and had to use powerful magnets to force them to travel in the correct direction, I was wondering what caused these particles to collide immediately after the Big Bang when the universe wasn't 17 miles long and large magnets didn't exist. Again, the article has very little information. The only thing I can think of is that the magnets simulate the effect of gravity upon the particles after the Big Bang. Because the universe was so compact the attraction of gravity was as strong as if the particles had been accelerated over 17 miles. Also, because the universe was so small it limited the space for the particles to escape each other thereby making collisions more likely. But I would be interested in talking to someone who knows more about particle accelerators and how they work to explore this in more detail.

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