The Large Hadron Collider under the France-Swiss border captures the headlines every so often. The big story this spring was that the LHC had been successfully re-started with protons circling the 27km long accelerator ring for the first time in more than two years. A month later proton beams collided at 99.9% of the speed of light at the ‘record-breaking energy of 13 TEVs’, and the machine began to deliver the much sought-after physics data.
But one news headline caught my attention. ‘What would happen if you got zapped by the LHC?’ One might guess it wouldn’t be very nice.
The LHC is the largest particle collider in the world and the largest single machine ever built. Although one TEV (or tera-electron volt) is roughly equivalent to the energy of motion of a flying mosquito, the energy within the LHC is squeezed into an extremely small space, about a million, million times smaller than a mosquito, and it is this intensity which causes the protons to be smashed apart. I’m not sure the mosquito analogy works. I know that energy like this can’t be quoted in terms of so many London buses or Olympic size swimming pools, though I did read somewhere that each beam contains the energy of a Eurostar train travelling at full speed. That’s more like it.
Back to the zapping. You’ve managed to get through security, down one of the eight shafts (which are up to 175 metres deep), and you’ve found a quiet spot in the 3.8 metre concrete tunnel close to a hypothetical inspection hatch into the accelerator ring. Though the collider should shut off if anyone starts tampering with the ring whilst it’s running, make believe that you’ve by-passed the safety systems and managed to stick your head inside the ring and into the proton beams. What happens next?
It depends on how many protons collide with nuclei in the tissues in your head, and how many zip through undisturbed. If the beam was of single protons, there would be little chance of impact, but there are 320 trillion protons spinning around each pipe of the LHC, and the beam would almost certainly burn a hole through your head. And as protons fling off secondary particles when they hit something, which incite another round of collisions, the beam would create a space that spreads out laterally. Rather than boring a hole a few microns wide in your head, a beam might carve out a large cone of tissue. You would be toast!
Is this all conjecture? Well not entirely. In 1978, Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, a 36-year-old physicist at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, Russia, was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment in a particle accelerator, the U-70 synchrotron. The machine was switched on inadvertently, and unfortunately the safety mechanisms failed to work. Bugorski’s head was in the path of the 76 GeV proton beam. Reportedly, he saw a flash ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ but did not feel any pain.
Over the next few days, the left half of Bugorski’s face swelled up and his skin started peeling around the spots where the beam had entered and exited his head. Believing that he had received far in excess of a fatal dose of radiation, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow for observation as the doctors fully expected him to die within a few days. Bugorski survived however, though he lost the hearing in his left ear, the left half of his face was paralysed due to nerve damage, and he was to suffer from occasional seizures. However, there was virtually no damage to his intellectual capacity.
Because of the Soviet Union’s policy of maintaining secrecy on nuclear power-related issues, Bugorski did not speak about the accident for over a decade. He continued going to the Moscow radiation clinic twice a year for examination and to meet with other nuclear-accident victims. He ‘remained a poster boy for Soviet and Russian radiation medicine’. In 1996, he applied unsuccessfully for disabled status to receive free epilepsy medication. Although Bugorski thought about making himself available to Western researchers as a case study, he could not afford to leave Protvino.
Fortunately no one has had a direct encounter with the LHC, though sadly in 2005 a technician was killed in the LHC when a piece of heavy equipment fell on him. An embarrassing incident occurred in November 2009, when power to one of the collider’s cooling plants failed causing superconducting magnets to overheat. The machine had to be turned off for three days to allow the magnets to cool. Above ground, the culprit was found to be ‘bird eating a piece of bread at a compensating capacitor’ which had shorted the mains supply to the collider. Exactly how a bit of baguette could halt the 7.5 billion euro project wasn’t explained.
Not surprisingly, the LHC has inspired works of fiction. The plot of the novel Angels & Demons by Dan Brown, involves the Illuminati stealing anti-matter created by the LHC to use as a weapon against the Vatican. Brown insists that there is a solid factual basis for his stories, and this no doubt appeals to the more credulous of his readers. For example, in the novel anti-matter is said to be the energy source of the future which is nonsense given the enormous amount of energy needed to create it. Such were the concerns of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and the builders of the LHC) about fiction being presented in the book as if it were fact, it felt obliged to publish a ‘Fact or Fiction’ page on its website. When the book came to be filmed, the director of the film, Ron Howard, met CERN experts, and the cast visited the LHC, in an effort to make the science in the story more accurate. Judging by some of the reviews, a lot more of the science depicted in the film, compared with that in the book, was factual.
The LHC first went live on Wednesday 10 September 2008, and in the week before, there were headlines in the tabloid newspapers such as ‘Are we all going to die next Wednesday?’ Readers were told of two doomsday scenarios. A small group of scientists claimed that when the LHC was activated there was a small chance that it would create a mini-black hole that would suck the Earth inside out. Alternatively, it would trigger a catastrophic chain reaction in the very fabric of space and time itself, which would rip apart the entire universe ‘like the skin of a bursting balloon’.
The group, led by Otto Rossler, a German biochemist known for his work on chaos theory, had sought an emergency injunction from the European Court for Human Rights to stop the LHC from being switched on. They also lodged a lawsuit arguing that the experiment, in the event that the LHC destroyed the entire Universe, violated ‘the right to life and right to private family life’. The court rejected the injunction, but said it would rule on the lawsuit later. Provided of course that the Earth was not swallowed up by a mini-black hole in the meantime.
There is a lot more information about the LHC here.