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Chemical Eye on the Fellowship of the Ring
by Preston MacDougall


October 13, 2008
Monday PM

If the Large Hadron Collider could take us back to the moment when President Bush decided to invade Iraq, then it might be able to prevent heartache for tens of thousands of American and Iraqi families. Unfortunately for them, and for our exploding federal debt, the international fellowship of physicists and engineers called CERN has designed this circular particle accelerator to recreate the conditions at the beginning of the universe instead.

At a cost of $8 billion, the 14-year construction phase of the LHC has just been completed, and the first particles have successfully navigated, at nearly the speed of light, the 17-mile circular tunnel located near Geneva. It has been dubbed a "discovery machine" and physicists around the world are giddy with anticipation. Not just about how many discoveries are sure to be made, but by the very real possibility that some may radically change our understanding of the world. Highest on the wish list of many is finding subatomic shrapnel that has already been christened the Higgs boson.

jpg Particle accelerators

Particle accelerators come in many shapes and sizes.

If it exists, the Higgs boson would be the "you complete me" part of the Standard Model, which is the most unified understanding of the known particles in the universe and how they interact with each other. Currently, we have a very good and fundamental understanding of why electrons in a battery go from the lead anode to the lead oxide cathode when you start your car. And we have some fundamental ideas about why certain rare isotopes of lead are highly radioactive, even though natural lead makes the best radioactivity shield at the dentist's office. But, at the most fundamental level, we really don't know why a lead balloon doesn't go over very well.

The Standard Model speculates that the Higgs boson is responsible for giving objects their mass. It also estimates that it would take energetic events - on the scale of the Big Bang - in order to experimentally detect it. For this reason it has been nicknamed "the God particle". This is also the reason that scientifically illiterate groups have sued to stop the operation of the LHC and other large particle accelerators, such as Fermilab near Chicago.

I am enthusiastic about all science, especially chemistry, but I am not a high-energy physicist. In fact, I would have preferred to see such a large amount of public science funding go toward discovering drugs that reduce the mass of cancer tumors, rather than to help understand their mass better. But the ring is complete, and in the spirit of scientific fellowship this commentary is intended to increase, if by only a tiny amount, the public's understanding of this project.

Just like I am not afraid of the Earth-gobbling black-hole scenario cited in the lawsuits, I'm also not afraid of eroding the public's understanding of particle accelerators. It seems to be almost as low as it can get. One of my favorite cartoons summed it up pretty cleverly.

Imagine a worker, in a bending tunnel, with bundles of wires overhead, and large magnets in various stages of unpacking, with several already mounted on the cement floor. He has a hardhat on, and is gripping a large wrench. He is looking up at the conductor who is poking his head out the window of a subway train. Both men have a look of confusion on their faces. The caption reads "Dearborn Street? Sorry pal, this is the Fermilab accelerator."

So let's think small, and about something familiar, like a TV. Not the modern plasma screens, but the old-fashioned TV sets with a tapered protrusion out the back. Those things are heavy - meaning there could be plenty of Higgs bosons in the picture, whether you're watching a NOVA special on the enigma of gravity or not. At a practical level, the extra weight is due to the particle accelerator that is inside the TV set. The "DANGER!" warning on the back of the TV was not there just because of the possibly mature viewing being shown on the front.

In the case of the LHC, the particles being accelerated are protons - the much heavier and positively charged half of a normal hydrogen atom. In your TV, the particles being accelerated are electrons - the other half of a hydrogen atom, much lighter and negatively charged. At the LHC, two proton beams will be accelerated to the speed of light and steered into each other with enormous electromagnets. Massive arrays of electronic eyes and heat sensors will be watching the millions of head-on collisions - each second! - hoping to shed light on our understanding of matter.

Your TV only has one accelerator, and the electromagnets are much smaller and not superconducting. Getting a complete set of directions from your cable company, almost 100 times per second, the electromagnets steer each bunch of electrons in the particle beam to the single correct pixel on your TV screen. This is impressive, especially at WalMart prices, since most screens have about one million triplets of red, blue and green phosphorescent sensors. These phosphors are made of various chemical compounds, often with representation from several parts of the periodic table. The collisions that millions of viewers unknowingly watch are rear-enders, with electrons slamming into parked phosphor materials that respond by emitting well-timed flashes of colored light.

Steven Hawking has put the odds of the LHC creating even microscopic black holes at less than one percent. And if created, they would quickly and harmlessly evaporate anyway. He has also bet against the LHC finding the Higgs boson.

After over 80 years of television, there has yet to be a single black hole reported. Unless you count FOX News and reality TV.


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Chemical Eye On... Columns by Preston MacDougall

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

Preston MacDougall ©2008

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