The Large Hadron Collider: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

This morning, at 3 a.m. EST, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), flipped the switch and circulated the first proton beam around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

The LHC, for those of you that have been hiding on Mars, in a cave, with your fingers in your ears, is the world's largest particle accelerator (the underground circular tunnel its housed in has a circumference of 17 miles and straddles the border between Switzerland and France, crossing it at four points). By colliding opposing beams of protons, CERN scientists intend to fill in the gaps that currently exist in the Standard Model, re-create the conditions that existed an instant after the big bang and get their hands on the Higgs Boson, the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that hasn't been found.

The idea of a ginormous particle accelerator knocking protons into each other at nearly the speed of light has some people"¦concerned. Despite the analysis performed by the LHC Safety Study Group, their conclusion that the LHC posed no conceivable threat, a second review by the LHC Safety Assessment Group and their conclusion that the LHC wasn't dangerous, two lawsuits, one in the U.S. and one in Europe, have been filed to keep the hadrons from colliding (if you were wondering, a hadron is bound group of quarks, and also really easy to misspell as hardon).

What are these people so worried about? Well, just the little matter of doomsday"¦

Back in (micro) Black (holes)

Much of the legal challenge to the LHC revolves around the slim chance that two quarks, one from each proton beam zipping around the collider, both endowed with immense energy inherited from the protons that contain them, could get too close to each other, collapse under their own gravitational interaction and create a small black hole. That gravitational interaction, many physicists have noted, needs to be really strong, though. For any scenario where a black hole pops up in the LHC we'd have to assume the existence of extra dimensions accessible to gravitons (the hypothetical particles that mediate the force of gravity), but not the other particles at play in the collider.

A planet-eating (or even a Switzerland-eating) black hole being created by the LHC would be, in a word, a long-shot. We've got room for error, though. The same reasoning that suggests creating black holes is possible also says that those black holes will evaporate because of a process called Hawking radiation. As much as black holes suck, they also radiate some energy out. The intensity of this radiation is determined by the temperature of the black hole, which is inversely proportional to its mass, so the very tiny black holes that the LHC might maybe manage to create would only be there for a fraction of a second before evaporating.

Keeping Proton Beams in Line

Even if a black hole comes and goes in the blink of an eye, the LHC is still a serious piece of machinery. During operation, the two proton beams will carry a total energy of 724 megajoules, equivalent to the energy of 380 pounds of TNT detonating. But it gets better! The magnets that keep the proton beams on their path during experiments will have a total stored energy of 10 gigajoules. That's the same amount of energy created by 2.4 tons of TNT going off.

With that much energy in one place, even small malfunction could be disastrous. Once the particles are set loose on their demolition derby, is there any way to shutdown the whole operation if there's a technical problem?

Well, duh. CERN spent almost two decades devising a system of fail-safes for the collider. The longer the proton beams whip around the track, the greater the chance that they'll become unstable, so CERN does the same thing to the beams that the nuns did to me in grade school: make them stand in the corner and think about what they've done.

When its time to replace the beams, the old ones are deflected by "kicker" magnets out of their circular path and steered by "septum" magnets (if you're thinking that the LHC is the world's largest collection of weird magnets, you're wrong; that would be my grandmother's fridge) into absorbers called beam dump blocks.

On its way to the dump block, the beam passes through "“ you guessed it "“ more magnets, which fan the protons out and lower the beam's intensity. Inside the beam dump cavern is the block, a 10-ton, 27-foot long graphite cylinder encased in steel and concrete. Quite a roadblock, but still easy enough for the proton beam to eat through, so CERN engineered things so that the beam is "scanned" onto the cylinder in a pattern instead of hitting it at just one point with full strength.

Win a Trip to Any National Park By Instagramming Your Travels

If you're planning out your summer vacation, make sure to add a few national parks to your itinerary. Every time you share your travels on Instagram, you can increase your chances of winning a VIP trip for two to the national park of your choice.

The National Park Foundation is hosting its "Pic Your Park" sweepstakes now through September 28. To participate, post your selfies from visits to National Park System (NPS) properties on Instagram using the hashtag #PicYourParkContest and a geotag of the location. Making the trek to multiple parks increases your points, with less-visited parks in the system having the highest value. During certain months, the point values of some sites are doubled. You can find a list of participating properties and a schedule of boost periods here.

Following the contest run, the National Park Foundation will decide a winner based on most points earned. The grand prize is a three-day, two-night trip for the winner and a guest to any NPS property within the contiguous U.S. Round-trip airfare and hotel lodging are included. The reward also comes with a 30-day lease of a car from Subaru, the contest's sponsor.

The contest is already underway, with a leader board on the website keeping track of the competition. If you're looking to catch up, this national parks road trip route isn't a bad place to start.

15 Dad Facts for Father's Day

Gather 'round the grill and toast Dad for Father's Day—the national holiday so awesome that Americans have celebrated it for more than a century. Here are 15 Dad facts you can wow him with today.

1. Halsey Taylor invented the drinking fountain in 1912 as a tribute to his father, who succumbed to typhoid fever after drinking from a contaminated public water supply in 1896.

2. George Washington, the celebrated father of our country, had no children of his own. A 2004 study suggested that a type of tuberculosis that Washington contracted in childhood may have rendered him sterile. He did adopt the two children from Martha Custis's first marriage.

3. In Thailand, the king's birthday also serves as National Father's Day. The celebration includes fireworks, speeches, and acts of charity and honor—the most distinct being the donation of blood and the liberation of captive animals.

4. In 1950, after a Washington Post music critic gave Harry Truman's daughter Margaret's concert a negative review, the president came out swinging: "Some day I hope to meet you," he wrote. "When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"

5. A.A. Milne created Winnie the Pooh for his son, Christopher Robin. Pooh was based on Robin's teddy bear, Edward, a gift Christopher had received for his first birthday, and on their father/son visits to the London Zoo, where the bear named Winnie was Christopher's favorite. Pooh comes from the name of Christopher's pet swan.

6. Kurt Vonnegut was (for a short time) Geraldo Rivera's father-in-law. Rivera's marriage to Edith Vonnegut ended in 1974 because of his womanizing. Her ever-protective father was quoted as saying, "If I see Gerry again, I'll spit in his face." He also included an unflattering character named Jerry Rivers (a chauffeur) in a few of his books.

7. Andre Agassi's father represented Iran in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics as a boxer.

8. Charlemagne, the 8th-century king of the Franks, united much of Western Europe through military campaigns and has been called the "king and father of Europe" [PDF]. Charlemagne was also a devoted dad to about 18 children, and today, most Europeans may be able to claim Charlemagne as their ancestor.

9. The voice of Papa Smurf, Don Messick, also provided the voice of Scooby-Doo, Ranger Smith on Yogi Bear, and Astro and RUDI on The Jetsons.

10. In 2001, Yuri Usachev, cosmonaut and commander of the International Space Station, received a talking picture frame from his 12-year-old daughter while in orbit. The gift was made possible by RadioShack, which filmed the presentation of the gift for a TV commercial.

11. The only father-daughter collaboration to hit the top spot on the Billboard pop music chart was the 1967 hit single "Something Stupid" by Frank & Nancy Sinatra.

12. In the underwater world of the seahorse, it's the male that gets to carry the eggs and birth the babies.

13. If show creator/producer Sherwood Schwartz had gotten his way, Gene Hackman would have portrayed the role of father Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch.

14. The Stevie Wonder song "Isn't She Lovely" is about his newborn daughter, Aisha. If you listen closely, you can hear Aisha crying during the song.

15. Dick Hoyt has pushed and pulled his son Rick, who has cerebral palsy, through hundreds of marathons and triathlons. Rick cannot speak, but using a custom-designed computer he has been able to communicate. They ran their first five-mile race together when Rick was in high school. When they were done, Rick sent his father this message: "Dad, when we were running, it felt like I wasn't disabled anymore!"


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