End of the world delayed

For once I agree entirely with the scientists. You will still be able to read this after 8.30 this morning. The world will not have fallen down a human made black hole – as if mankind had such power!
The more interesting question is what benefit in our understanding of the universe will we be getting for the huge outlays of money and time on the particle railway under the Alps? It looks like a train set from an earlier age, which just took a long time to build. Let’s hope it lives up to the billing.


  1. Stuart Fairney
    September 10, 2008

    A great post because in the unlikely event of a quantum singularity (or something, this stretches my 'O' level physics way too far) forming, no-one is ever going to say you were wrong!!

    Do you ever wonder if theoretical physicists are having an enormous “Emperor’s clothes” style laugh on the rest of us who don’t have the slightest idea what they are talking about? I ask because I recently tried “Quantum theory for dummies” and felt like a stone age man trying to read an electronics manual (in French).

  2. James
    September 10, 2008

    That's re-assuring John as I'm only part way through '100 things to do before you die'

  3. Tony Makara
    September 10, 2008

    Scientific research is very important, being a linguist and not a scientist, I can't claim to be an expert in such matters. However my layman's knowledge, and my gut instinct, tells me that this grandiose experiment is nothing more than an egocentric waste of money. Should we discover the exact composition of the universe, what then? Does the knowledge have any value beyond academic pontification? However one area where I would like to see more research is in the field of genetics, this being a domain in which science could improve the everyday lives of everyone. The appliance of science has to serve goals and not become the reserve of academic curiosity.

    1. DWL
      September 10, 2008

      Hello Tony. You are clearly not an expert in such matters, judging from that confused rant!

      It's already certain that we won't discover the exact composition of the universe from this experiment.

      So you would like to see research in Genetics, but not in Physics?

      Genetics originated in Physics. The work done by Crick, Watson, and Franklin in X-Ray Crystallography owes much more to Physics than you seem to allow. Read 'The Double Helix' sometime.

      I suppose, as to whether the information has any value, really depends on the individual. As Oscar said, 'We are all in the Gutter, but some of us are looking at the Stars'. What are you looking at Tony?

      I can assure you that there is the potential for just as much 'academic pontification' in the field of Genetics. I would suggest the only person pontificating here is you.

      1. Tony Makara
        September 10, 2008

        DWL, I just feel that research for research sake is a waste of money. Of course physics should be supported, but it should apply itself in a way that is socially beneficial. What is this experiment all about? It smacks of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Seeing as you are name dropping I will return the volly by quoting Arthur Schopenhauer who said "Only learn what is useful" so much of so-called knowledge borders on curiosity, even trivia, and has little real-life value. I predict that the end result of this experiement will be lots of conjecture and little by way of new knowledge.

        1. Neil Craig
          September 10, 2008

          In any purely materialistic terms music is not "useful", but merely a way of demonstrating our humanity. Science, while it has an even greater role in demonstrating our difference from the animals, is also useful as the fact that we are communicting by internet rather than shouting proves.

          No comment about Schopenhauer required.

        2. DWL
          September 10, 2008

          Well we can throw hackneyed, out of context epigrams at each other all afternoon, Tony.

          I accept that people find it hard to countenance such huge expenditure on something so esoteric. I am carrying out publicly funded technical research myself, and find it impossible and nefarious to justify it in terms of 'net return to society in terms of money invested'. What is the value of a Journal publication? Why should not the money paid to me to do the research not go to the homeless man who is always begging against the outside wall of my laboratory? I have no answer to that, and that makes me uncomfortable. As a result we are careful how we spend money. I can simply marvel that I live in a society that has decided to make what I do possible.

          However, I object to your evocation of 'angels dancing on pins' and such like. Your whole stance seems to be founded on an understanding that research in academia can be reduced to an unproductive travelling club, full of eggheads detached from reality.

          The experiment at CERN is the complete opposite. The scientists there are trying to determine what constitutes reality. Lots of intelligent people have decided, argued for, and been awarded the money that will allow them to test a scientific theory and generate lots of data that will give us new insights into our universe.

          The fact that you cannot see why that is an admirable end, tells me more about you than it does about Science.

    2. adam
      September 10, 2008

      Thought i was going to agree with you there Tony!
      Yes science is very important.
      Alas the potential importance of this incredible
      advancement of humanity is lost on you.

  4. Thatcher-right
    September 10, 2008

    I don't expect there to be any practical use for what is being discovered for the next fifty years however much modern technology (silicon chips, plasma televisions, LED bike lights etc.) is only possible because of our deeper understanding of the nature of matter from analogous experiments fifty years ago.
    I, for one, am quite excited but, then, I am a physicist!
    By the way 1) I don't expect anything significant to come out for six months or a year.
    By the way 2) The underlying protocol that supports the World Wide Web came out of CERN as a side effect – they needed a way of sharing documents!

  5. HJ
    September 10, 2008

    A pretty safe prediction, John.

    As you were correct, we can all see this. Had you been wrong, then we would not be around to point out your error.

    More interestingly, you say that 'for once' you agree with 'the scientists'. As a physicist by training, I'd be interested to know why and on what subjects, you disagree with us the rest of the time.

  6. mike rippingale
    September 10, 2008

    I just borrowed this from the New Scientist archive, I hope they don't mind:

    Those audiences were not trained in science, so that Faraday had to use his undoubted communication skills in explaining to them what he was doing. Perhaps this is where he learnt to parry the sword thrusts of the philistines. When one visitor asked him what was the use of what he was doing, Faraday made the famous retort 'What use is a baby?' To another, and more illustrious questioner, the Prime Minister, he made the prophetic reply: 'In ten years you will be taxing it!' Touche.

  7. Stephen Southworth
    September 10, 2008

    Do you speak to soon here John….the sub atomic particle collisions don't start for another month or so! With Gordon's luck though, any mini-black hole that did occur would be centred on Birmingham in a few weeks time!

  8. Neil Craig
    September 10, 2008

    Adam Hart Davis pointed out on the radio that the guy who invented the internet was working at Cerne & designed a way to exchange scientific information. Not to shabby & an example of the way it is literally impossible to predict what good science will produce. There is no investment we make which pays off, to society as a whole, as much as scientific research.

    The other interesting thing is that every media report has had to feel the need to sex up their reporting by claiming that some "independent astrophysicists" believe it will create a black hole & destroy the world. Apart from the fact that it won't create a black hole & that such a small hole would disintegrate instantly this appears to be based on 2 people in Hawaii one of whom is is an engineer with no experience of "astrophysics" & the other has a degree in biology & is teaching science & maths from "grade school to college". A fine example of how the media are willing to search the world (literally in this case) to find someone to parrot the scare stories they want. Anybody wanting to become a famous scientist, at least for 15 minutes, knows this.

    1. Thatcher-right
      September 10, 2008

      This is not quite true.
      The Internet was not invented at CERN. It came from the US military together with various Universities.
      Tim Berners-Lee at CERN developed World Wide Web – a system for linking together documents on different computers. The World Wide Web uses the Internet to transport data about.

  9. Eddie Allen
    September 10, 2008

    Forget black holes, we have a big one already.

    This is the future of an EU President holding unlimited power.


  10. David Farrer
    September 10, 2008


    I'm sure there wasn't a cuckoo clock on the wall before 8.30 and I note that our fridge is suddenly full of cheese.

    Now, where's the Toblerone?

  11. mike stallard
    September 10, 2008

    I suppose, if I am honest, that my background is Christian: therefore I am interested in science.
    In the 19th century, science was plainly pointing away from Christianity which, to borrow the reaction of King Mongkut of Thailand was ‘ridiculous’.
    Since Einstein, though, there seems to have been a muddle. The things going on at the small microscopic end and the things going on at the big astrophysics end do not add up. I understand that even Einstein was puzzled by this.
    What is all this about 11 dimensions? What exactly are the bits of divided atoms (quarks?) thinking about? What exactly is at the bottom of a black hole?
    Suddenly, we live in a really mysterious universe where the old certainties have passed away.
    So what is science going to reveal next?

    1. Thatcher-right
      September 10, 2008

      Let's start at the beginning.
      The scientific method consists of:
      making observations of the physical universe.
      formulating a model that fits with the observations
      and testing this model with further observations.
      There are a couple of basic 'acts of faith' – that everything is open to explanation and that the rules are the same everywhere – and thus far they seem to be holding up OK.
      Much 19th century science was fine. Newton's model predicted pretty much everything they could observe and the light / electricity / atomic games were coming along nicely.
      But then catastrophe… a couple of observations (from memory – the pattern of radiation from a black object and the timing of the moons of Jupiter) didn't fit the models.
      A couple of extra theories (relativity and quantum mechanics) were developed to explain the effects. The basic 'acts of faith' above demand that these be special cases of a more general 'Grand Unified Theory' (GUT). This theory is not yet fully developed and the new collider is aimed at testing bit of the theory.
      We will never be able to 'see' quarks or black holes but this does not make them any less real than atoms or even electrons (which we can also not 'see'). However, the simplest models that we can construct to explain things we can 'see' requires that they exist.
      To construct his model for moving bodies Newton had to develop an entirely new branch of mathematics – the calculus. Imagine how a contemporary 'civilian', with little more than a basic knowledge of arithmetic, would struggle to appreciate the power and elegance of his model.
      My hunch is that the GUT, when we get there, will be as simple and elegant as Newton's law's of motion …
      and just as incomprehensible to the rest of us!

  12. Derek
    September 10, 2008

    Is this thing actually working yet? Do you think they've tried switching it off and switching it back on again?

  13. alastair
    September 11, 2008

    For those of you who are interested in the nitty gritty of what is and is not working, daily status reports are available here: https://lhc-commissioning.web.cern.ch/lhc-commiss

    They are updated frequently throughout the day and I find them both incomprehensible and fascinating.

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