IRA FLATOW, host:
This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow.
A bit later in the hour, a look at biofuels research. But first, sometime later this year a massive particle accelerator, known as the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, is scheduled to start operations deep underground of the borders between France and Switzerland. Over 2,000 physicists from 34 countries have been involved in the construction of the LHC, which, the theory goes, could provide a glimpse of sub-atomic particles such as the Higgs boson, thought to be responsible for giving matter mass.
Experiments might also shed some light about the validity of string theory. But the powerful collisions created in the particle accelerator also have the potential, in theory at least, to create other exotic particles. One called the "strangelet" and perhaps even a black hole. Both which would be deadly, if created, for all living beings on Earth. And that has sparked a lawsuit filed in federal court in Hawaii by seven individuals seeking an injunction against the collider, arguing that it could endanger the planet.
Joining me now to talk about the Large Hadron Collider, why physicists are excited about it, what is the status of it coming online and the safety concerns being raised, is Dr. Frank Wilczek. He's the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at M.I.T. in Cambridge. He's also the 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics, and one of a group of physicists that, in 1999, looked at a similar safety concern being raised at that time about a particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island.
He joins us by phone in Oxford. Welcome, Dr. Wilczek.
Dr. FRANK WILCZEK (Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Hello.
FLATOW: What is the status, though - some of us thought it would already be online by now. Or next month.
Dr. WILCZEK: Well, it's an extraordinarily complicated project and it's amazing that it can be made to work at all. There's many, many moving parts and it's pushing the edges of technology. So we have to be patient. But it's - the excitement is building and we are hoping that the machine will start operation early this fall and come on full speed next year.
FLATOW: And why are you so excited about this machine?
Dr. WILCZEK: It's going to give us insight at a whole new level into the fundamentals of physics. I have written a whole book about it, which I should plug.
FLATLOW: Go ahead. Give us the name.
Dr. WILCZEK: It's called "The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether and the Unification of Forces." It will be coming out in September, Perseus Books. And it's just the machine we've been waiting for. We have brilliant ideas about what might happen that have just been waiting to be tested. We have good reason to think that the universe we live in is a vast kind of exotic, cosmic superconductor and we want to see what makes it a superconductor. That's called the Higgs particle. But it's a richer story than just discovering a particle.
We have ideas about how to unite the different forces of nature and the different kinds of particles that we observe as the basic building blocks of nature, that are very beautiful concepts but need to be tested against experiment. We have ideas about what the dark matter might be, the dark matter that astronomers have discovered makes up much more of the universe, by mass, than the normal matter we are made of and we understand. So some of the best ideas about what that dark matter is suggest that it could be something that will be made at the LHC. So there is just a tremendous sense of excitement building that this is the right machine at the right time to bring fundamental physics to a new level.
FLATOW: What will be the first experiments run on it? Looking for what? The calibration...
Dr. WILCZEK: All the experiments happen at once, really. Because the nature of the machine is that it brings together protons at very, very high energy, and you see what comes out. So...
FLATOW: So you smash these protons together and you see what...
Dr. WILCZEK: Yes.
FLATOW: Literally, you break it up with, like a hammer and see what comes out of it.
Dr. WILCZEK: Exactly, right. And so everything that's there we will find and all these experiments will be done - all these searches will be done at the same time.
FLATOW: And let's talk about the Higgs boson because you mentioned it and physicists always talk about finding this Higgs boson. What is it and why is it so important to look for it?
Dr. WILCZEK: Well, our theory of the basic electric and weak forces, the so-called Electroweak theory, those are two of the four fundamental forces of nature, have as a fundamental component the idea that what we perceive as empty space is not empty at all. That it has material properties and that, in fact, it's a kind of exotic superconductor. But unlike for ordinary superconductors, we don't know what makes empty space have the properties it does. And so there are hypotheses about what it is, many different hypotheses, but the way we are going to find out for sure is to break off little chips of this material that we see ordinarily as empty space, and examine them and find out what their properties are. So that goes under the name Higgs boson. And it might be just one new kind of particle that does the job, but I suspect that it's a much richer story and that we'll find that there is a whole world of phenomena connected with this superconducting property of empty space.
FLATOW: And that brings me to this unusual lawsuit I talked about earlier. Trying to stop these experiments, thinking that some sort of - one of these crashes of particles might create some interesting but deadly particles, one of them being called a "strangelet," which would eventually convert all of Earth into a large strangelet huge particle.
Dr. WILCZEK: Right. Or a black hole.
FLATOW: Or a black hole. You investigated the possibilities of this almost 10 years ago.
Dr. WILCZEK: Yes. Some of the same people raised the same kinds of issues, and of course, in the scientific literature, the underlying phenomena of strangelets or black holes have been discussed. But I think there are three independent arguments, each of which is decisive, that should reassure everyone about these possibilities. First, nature has already done the experiment. Cosmic rays achieve energies even higher than will be explored at the LHC and have been for billions of years. And so if any of theses things were to happen or be a physical possibility, it would have happened in the cosmos and its effects would have been visible. Secondly, we have a sociological argument. As you mentioned, thousands of people work on the LHC project and have worked in the basic subject of high-energy physics and accelerators. And those people have families. They have love of life. If they had perceived the slightest danger of this kind, if they thought it was plausible, they would be screaming about it.
The idea that there is a vast conspiracy involving thousands of scientists to hush up some problem is just kind of crazy on its face. And then finally, some of us sort of were designated to be the B team or the Red squad and try to really think about how, conceivably, you know, just use your imagination, try to make everything in a worst case scenario, how conceivably, dangers could arise. And I and my colleagues really took that as a challenge. You know, we love that kind of challenge. Use our imagination and see what you can dream up, and even doing our best we couldn't come up with any scenario, any mechanism that made sense that would suggest that there was a serious danger.
FLATOW: So you just think this is just an old argument that has reared its head again?
Dr. WILCZEK: Yeah, based on misunderstandings and a sort of taking words out of context.
FLATOW: I only have a short time left, Dr. Wilczek. Can you give us some idea of when you think the Hadron Collider might be powering up? Should we look out at certain dates?
Dr. WILCZEK: It's a matter of months, not years. The test runs are due to commence in the late summer or early fall, and then it should come up to full energy starting next year.
FLATOW: As someone who likes to think about all possibilities of things, what happens if you turn it on and you don't see any of these things that you were hoping to see?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. WILCZEK: Well, that would be interesting, too, because it would show that our understanding of the world is fundamentally flawed. As I said, our basic theory of the forces we know about is based on the idea that empty space has a lot of structure and we had better be able to probe that structure. I mean, that structure, if it exists, will be probed by this machine. And so the biggest surprise would be for nothing to happen. I just, it would be a real shock to the system and send us back to the drawing board.
FLATOW: And this will be the biggest machine for some time to come, there's nothing...
Dr. WILCZEK: Yes. This is the machine we have been waiting for, the super-conducting super-collider was on schedule for the United States, but got cancelled. That would have been a comparable machine. But this is the one we have been waiting for. It's the right machine at the right time, or maybe actually too late, a little late. But it's going to test very exciting ideas for the first time, so it's a thrilling prospect for fundamental physics.
FLATOW: Yeah, we'll all be watching it closely. We've been talking about this for over 10 years on Science Friday, so.
Dr. WILCZEK: Yeah. These ideas have been waiting so it's nice for the experiment to catch up with theory.
FLATOW: Dr. Wilczek, thank you for staying up for us tonight.
Dr. WILCZEK: Right. Bye-bye.
FLATOW: And have a good weekend. Dr. Frank Wilczek who was the 2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics and Professor of Physics at M.I.T. And author, I guess, of an upcoming book called "The Lightness of Being," which will be out in September and we'll have him back to talk about it.
Stay with us. We are going to take a short break, talk about some interesting and intriguing new research into bio-fuels, you know, people loved it at first and now we are wondering if it is worth all this effort because it eats up a lot of food, drives up the price of grain. Some people are thinking about new ways of creating bio-fuels that may not be as expensive and energy-consuming. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.