Futurology blog: what’s the next trend that’ll disrupt our world, financially, socially or just pointlessly?

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Large Hadron Collider: the ultimate question generator

The Large Hadron Collider, we’re told, will help scientists solve some of the mysteries of the universe. But while I’m agog with fascination at the whole thing, I have my doubts that the LHC will achieve its stated mission, or even whether the scientists who designed the LHC expect it to.

So far, every time scientists look deeper into quantum scale events, they fill their textbooks with more mysteries than they started with. Why should the LHC change this?

We’re told that the LHC may help resolve the fundamental incompatibility between the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Supposedly gravity can be explained by relativity – in terms of a warping of space-time. Quantum theory, which explains things by a warping of the brain, somehow contradicts the relativity explanation.

So the idea is that colliding the two theories with tiny particles will either get them to shake hands or gravity will cease to exist and Wonderbra sales will go into freefall.

I think this is all a bit optimistic. The last time I looked, there were two theories of relativity (the second one to explain the bits that didn’t quite work in the first one) and umpteen different quantum theories (and that’s just in this universe, which some of the theories claim is just one of an infinite number). To extrapolate, it’s far more likely that the LHC will lead to ever more incompatible theories than it is to resolve the issues they have with each other.

The other weird thing to bear in mind is that the results produced by the LHC may be specific to LHC conditions and to nowhere else. That’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.

Using really, really simple apparatus that you can put together yourself in a few minutes, you can show that photons decide how to behave depending on whether and how they’re being observed, like naughty investment bankers. (Try it yourself, it really is mindboggling.)

So how on earth (or under it) do we know that gravitons and gluons and quarks and Higgs Bosons won’t alter their behaviour when they realise that they’re finally under scrutiny? Right now we barely know the first thing about dark energy and dark matter. Putting the stuff under the LHC microscope could just alter its behaviour, with profound results.

Thing is, there’s no way we can know that until we give it a try. And after we’ve done it, we’ll probably never know whether our surveillance has altered the properties of the stuff that fills up 94% of the universe or not.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t fiddle with the basic building blocks of reality. It’s going to be utterly thrilling. All I’m saying is that I expect the universe to be a lot more incomprehensible next year than now.

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