From Duck Soup to Quark Soup: Is the LHC a Good Idea?

Some thoughts on the Large Hadron Collider

For those not familiar with it, ‘Duck Soup’ was a film made in 1933 starring the Marx brothers.

The Large Hadron Collider, operated by CERN on the Swiss-French border, was built to investigate fundamental properties of matter. It does this by smashing together the nuclei (cores) of atoms at speeds close to the speed of light.

One subject of particular interest is quark soup, the stuff that was believed to be around just after the Big Bang, that congealed into atoms. Separating atoms back out into the quarks that they’re made of could tell us quite a bit about the nature of the matter that we and everything around us are formed from.

Trouble is, it could tell us things in quite a loud sort of way – the Big Bang was quite loud (or would have been, if there’d been anyone there to hear it). And once it starts telling us things it may be quite difficult to get it to stop,

Some people have worried that the LHC might create a black hole that would swallow us all up. That seems rather unlikely. Less unlikely is that we might get quite a dramatic demonstration of Einstein’s famous E = mc2.   Pretty hot soup!

If you’re ready for the main course, read on …
It’s an easy step from Marx to Quarks, and there’s a strange resemblance between the wild-eyed wild-haired look of the Marx brothers and the mental image many of us have of groundbreaking scientists such as Albert Einstein.

More than that, just like the Marx Brothers, quarks are generally to be found in threes and it’s very difficult to separate them. One possible problem that’s looked at in this post is the likelihood that if one does manage to separate quarks then, like the Marx brothers, they may cause even more havoc than if they’re just left together.

[I have to declare an interest here: another of the Marx brothers’ best-known films, ‘A Night at the Opera’, is based on Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’, an opera that overlapped with his 'La Traviata' which I’m currently taking part in.  Also it seems to me that researchers at the LHC may be looking for things that could in some cases turn out to be the scientific equivalent of ‘Horse Feathers’ – the title of yet another well-loved Marx brothers film.]

So what’s the plan, Chico?

One of the objectives of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is to create quark plasma – also referred to as ‘quark soup’.  The protons and neutrons at the centre of every atom are each made up of three quarks, said to be held together by ‘gluons’.

It’s believed that immediately after the Big Bang at the beginning of everything, quarks were seething around together in an intensely high-energy state – quark plasma – before they got together in threesomes to form those components that make up each atomic nucleus. LHC scientists are looking to re-create that state – in a small way, of course.

Now let’s first dispense with what almost certainly won’t happen in the LHC.  Some people have been concerned, even to the extent of trying to get a court injunction, that smashing particles together at near-light-speed could create mini black holes that might suck in everything around them.  This would be first the LHC, then maybe the Alps, followed by the whole world and possibly more.

A black hole is an intense localised concentration of mass – imagine the weight of the whole earth in a pinhead.  Now the amount of stuff being pushed round the inside of the LHC is a lot nearer that of an ordinary pinhead than one the weight of the earth, it’s difficult to see how a black hole is even going to get started.

But all this hoo-ha about black holes has taken the focus off another possibility, one that’s highlighted by probably the most famous equation in the world: Einstein’s E = mc2.

What’s the grouch, Groucho?

We don’t actually know what’s holding those quarks together in threes, it’s all speculation.  They’ve been that way since just after the Big Bang, when conditions were very, very different from how they are now.  What we do know is that matter and energy are just different versions of basically the same stuff – in fact, more and more evidence is emerging that particles of matter are just photons of light wrapped up in a ball.    If that’s the case, it’s the electromagnetic fields in those photons that are holding the particles together.

So, question: if the LHC does manage to whup those particles hard enough and fast enough to split those quarks apart – what happens next?  We’ve actually no way of knowing, except to know that the early universe was a seething mass of energy – and of course that equation of Einstein’s.

It could be that those happy threesomes are all that’s holding that quark energy in stable particle form, that if we crack them apart then each won’t have the electromagnetic effects it needs from the other two to keep it in shape.  Imagine, for example, three mutually interlinked rubber bands – a good analogy for the way quarks behave.  The only way to separate them is to break them – and then they’re not rubber bands any more, they’re just bits of rubber.

In the same way, three interlinked loops of energy, if we break them apart, may turn out to be just three bits of raw energy. And Einstein’s equation tells us that’s bad news. The energy released in a nuclear fission reaction, for example an atom bomb, is around one-tenth of the total energy in the mass of that bomb. This could be the whole lot, all at one go.

As a simple guideline, the total energy in five kilograms of anything is enough to keep a car moving for a million years.

Time to play your harp, Harpo?

So ok, we’re not talking five kilos, we’re talking maybe a pinhead.  Maybe just the equivalent of one year’s-worth of automobile fuel, in a tiny space, all at one go.  That energy could maybe smash particles into the walls of the LHC vessel itself, causing a similar reaction – a chain reaction, as atoms of that vessel disintegrate end release their energy, and so it goes on …

Nah, couldn’t happen.  They know what they’re doing.

Do they?  Then what is the LHC for, if not to find out the basic principles of what matter is made of?  We know a great deal more about the structure of undersea geological formations than we do about the structure of sub-atomic particles – care to go for a scuba dive in the Gulf of Mexico?  That couldn’t happen, either…

The LHC is in fact a calculated risk, a gamble.

If that gamble doesn’t pay off, it could land us all in the soup …

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