The Universe in a Grain of Sand

The public attention that the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has received is rare for scientific news, perhaps owing to concerns that something celestially dangerous is being cooked up in our backyard. But the collider's real importance consists in its potential to alter radically the way think – and not just about science.

There was a flurry of press coverage when the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was turned on, and again when it was shut down by a technical problem shortly afterwards. The collider’s operation was a much-anticipated event in science, one that could confirm or undermine one of the most successful theories about how the universe is structured. The public attention that it has received is rare for scientific news, perhaps owing to concerns that something celestially dangerous is being cooked up in our backyard.

The lead-up coverage was accompanied by hype about the potential risks, so when the test did not seem to go as planned, it was natural to wonder if the fabric of space-time had been bruised. Some of the initial rumors about what could happen were extreme. One speculated that these new high energies, when combined with the specific way the particles would be broken, would annihilate us. In another scenario, the lab might create uncontrollable tiny black holes. In yet another, the creation of a “stranglet” would spawn new and terrible levels of nuclear power.

There are possible risks when messing around with fundamental matter, but in this case, the shutdown was due to a mundane gas leak. What makes this test interesting for scientists, rather than newsmakers, is unchanged, and will still be exciting when CERN starts up the collider again.

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