The Genesis Device

Deep below the surface of the earth outside Geneva, Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider is poised to answer some of physicists’ most pressing questions about the origin and structure of the universe. What new conceptions of the cosmos await us?

(Originally published in EnlightenNext, Issue 43, March–May 2009)

Last November, my wife and I got tickets to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Doctor Atomic, a three-hour performance about the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project during World War II to develop the atomic bomb. Although the show was being performed live at the Met Opera on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we were in London, where the performance was being transmitted, live and in high definition, to the sixty-five-foot-high screen at the British Film Institute’s IMAX theater by the Thames. Even for tech-savvy Gen Y’ers who take scientific wonders like the iPhone for granted, this struck us as being pretty amazing. Trillions upon trillions of photons (the quantum particles that make up light) are captured by video cameras focused on the stage in New York while the molecular vibrations we call sound beat against microphones, instantly translated into electromagnetic fields racing along metal wires. Then the encoded video and audio signals are electronically processed and synchronized, beamed up to a satellite orbiting the earth, and streamed back down to the U.K. to be reconverted into sounds and images resembling the originally recorded forms. All happening in real time, all happening at nearly the speed of light.

I think Robert Oppenheimer would have been amazed too.

A genius and polymath who loved to quote Baudelaire in French and expanded his linguistic repertoire so he could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit, Oppenheimer was known for his fascination with the larger, even spiritual, implications of human beings gaining increasing mastery of the fundamental forces of the physical world. Upon the first successful detonation of a nuclear bomb at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer famously recalled that two lines from the Gita came to mind as he watched, with a scientist’s relief and a mystic’s awe, the blinding explosion of light and the mushroom cloud that followed. The first was, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.” The second was more ominous: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Sixty-four years later, we stand at the brink of another potentially world-changing—though hopefully less destructive—foray into the nuclear realm. This summer near Geneva, Switzerland, the massive new particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will finally become fully operational, opening a new window onto the subatomic universe for physicists around the globe.

Built in the shape of a giant ring seventeen miles in circumference, costing more than eight billion dollars, and meticulously constructed by ten thousand scientists and engineers over a period of thirteen years, the LHC is the largest and most sophisticated scientific instrument ever devised, a massive marvel of human ingenuity buried more than five hundred feet below ground on the border between Switzerland and France. Using pulsing magnets with a cumulative power of fourteen trillion electron-volts, the device will accelerate streams of atomic particles to over 99.999 percent of the speed of light from opposite directions and crash them into each other, replicating explosive conditions similar to those believed to have existed just a billionth of a second after the big bang, when the universe was a seething miasma of quantum chaos. By closely analyzing what happens in these intense collisions, which will happen up to six hundred million times per second in each of the LHC’s four giant experimental detectors, scientists hope to shed light on some of the biggest mysteries of existence. They’re seeking answers to questions like: Does the theoretical “God particle” actually exist? Are there higher dimensions beyond our three-dimensional universe? Why is gravity so much weaker than the other three fundamental forces of physics? What is the enigmatic “dark matter” that pervades the cosmos? What happened in the very first nanosecond of the big bang? And what, if anything, existed before our universe burst into being?

When the LHC was first activated by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, on September 10, 2008, the media frenzy it stirred up overshadowed even the U.S. presidential election at times, helped in no small measure by rampant rumors that the experimental device might spawn miniature black holes that could devour the earth. Parents allegedly phoned CERN, begging them to shut down the LHC for the sake of their children’s lives. At least one American physicist received a death threat for his involvement with the European atom-smasher. And even though many of the countless news articles, blog posts, and BBC and CNN segments about the LHC featured respected scientific authorities asserting that such apocalyptic scenarios were scientifically spurious, such reassurances didn’t seem to reach some of humanity’s more superstitious quarters. In India, people reportedly flocked to temples in fear and a sixteen-year-old girl named Chaya tragically killed herself, terrified that the world would come to an end when the LHC was activated the next day.

Although the collider clearly has not destroyed the planet, an electrical fault did cause a minor explosion just nine days after the LHC’s activation, necessitating an immediate shutdown of the device until repairs can be completed this spring. Since then, public interest in the project appears to have dropped considerably. But for those scientists who have closely followed the LHC’s construction since the early 1990s and speak of it in reverential tones, the excitement hasn’t waned in the slightest. Having recently spoken with some of them, I’m beginning to understand why. For them, the LHC is truly a kind of “God machine,” and not just for its mind-boggling size, incredible sophistication, and awe-inspiring power. No, the LHC is a God machine because it will allow human beings to play God like never before—reproducing, in a controlled setting, the same energetic conditions that defined the moment of creation, 13.73 billion years ago, when the universe was less than one-billionth of a second old and had only expanded to about the size of a solar system.

In the summer of 1945, Oppenheimer marveled at the force he had released by splitting the atom, which suddenly granted to humanity the kind of power that had previously been the province of the Divine. Now, in the summer of 2009, a new and similarly ambitious physics experiment will begin. There can be little doubt that the discoveries made by the LHC will have repercussions that extend beyond the strictly scientific realm, broadening, deepening, and perhaps even redefining our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

So what mind-expanding machinations will soon be stirring deep below Geneva?

The Music of Extra-Dimensional Strings

“We’re intelligent apes on the third planet of a minor star trying to re-create the greatest incident of the universe: Genesis.” The voice on the other end of the line (conveyed via photons traveling at light-speed) is that of theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku, one of the world’s foremost popularizers of scientific concepts to a mainstream audience. His New York Times bestsellers boast such provocative titles as Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension and Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel. Kaku is also a professor at the City University of New York and a vocal proponent of string field theory, the current best contender for a grand unified theory that could potentially integrate all known physical laws into one simple and elegant mathematical equation.

“We’re going to be re-creating temperatures and energies not seen since the beginning of the universe,” he continues. “So on the plus side, what we hope to do is create new physics—specifically, to discover something called the Higgs boson, which is the last missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle of subatomic particles. But even to go beyond that, we want to create new dynamics that will unveil, perhaps, the theory of everything.”

The Higgs boson and the theory of everything, aka the God particle and string theory. When you ask most physicists what they hope the LHC will find evidence for, these two topics usually rank near the top of their lists.

The Higgs boson is the last remaining theorized-but-not-yet-observed elementary particle in the Standard Model of physics, which is the generally accepted theory of the properties and interactions of subatomic particles. First posited in 1963, the Higgs boson derives its divine God-particle status from its predicted function—to bestow upon other particles the crucial property of mass. As British particle physicist Brian Cox, who works at CERN on the LHC, puts it, “It’s what makes stuff ‘stuff.’ ” If the Higgs particle is finally isolated and detected amid the tremendous energies generated by the LHC, champagne bottles will be uncorked in physics labs everywhere. If it isn’t found, physicists will need to go back to the drawing board.

As for string theory, it’s one of the only proposed ways to neatly tie together the forty-odd elementary particles of the Standard Model, which is, according to Kaku, “the ugliest theory known to science. It’s like scotch-taping an aardvark to a giraffe to a blue whale and declaring it nature’s finest evolutionary creation.” After a pause, he adds, “The Standard Model is very successful, but nobody believes it’s the final theory. We call it ‘the theory of almost everything.’ There has to be a higher theory to complete the Standard Model.”

That higher theory, Kaku believes, is string theory, which has gained a growing foothold in public awareness over the last decade, thanks in part to his own tireless promotional efforts. I ask him if he can explain the basic concept in laymen’s terms.

“Einstein spent the last thirty years of his life chasing after a theory of everything,” he replies, “an equation no more than one inch long that would summarize all physical laws from the creation of the universe to the formation of galaxies and the earth—maybe even the formation of people and love—a single framework to describe the unity of the entire universe. Well, he failed. But today we think we have it. It’s a bizarre theory that says that all matter really consists of tiny little vibrating rubber bands, or strings. Different vibrations of these strings could be considered musical notes, with each note corresponding to a different subatomic particle. The reason we have so many subatomic particles is because there are so many musical notes you can make.”

According to string theorists, however, these vibrating strings are inconceivably tiny and virtually impossible to detect directly, which has led some to criticize the theory for being untestable and, therefore, unscientific. “I simply have to accept what the very few people in the world who understand string theory tell me,” says British theologian and philosopher Keith Ward, author of The Big Questions in Science and Religion, during an interview conducted for this article. “Half of them say it’s a completely untestable theory, and the other half say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll come across a way of testing it by what happens in the Large Hadron Collider.’”

Kaku clearly falls into the latter camp, hoping that the LHC will find indirect evidence in support of string theory by detecting some of the exotic entities that the theory predicts, such as “sparticles.” “Sparticles are superparticles,” he explains. “They are the next higher vibration or octave of the strings. And if we find them, that would give enormous credibility to the idea that the universe is a symphony of strings—cosmic music resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace.”

Eleven-dimensional hyperspace? Yes, for string theorists, our ordinary 3-D universe doesn’t quite cut it. If the LHC manages to reveal extra dimensions of space, this would be another huge piece of indirect evidence to bolster string theory.

Janna Levin, a theoretical cosmologist, author, and professor of physics and astronomy at Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York, isn’t a string theorist but remains open to the idea. Catching her on her cell phone as she runs to her office between classes, I ask her how the intense particle collisions in the LHC might produce evidence of other dimensions. “Well,” she says, “we’re really hoping to see signals of all kinds of new physics beyond what we’re used to seeing in our ordinary laboratories. The big hope is that the LHC would start to see, if not new particles themselves, then at least really important information about what physics looks like at very high energies. And if there are extra spatial dimensions, it’s possible that the LHC will be able to find them. We’ll observe energy leaking out of our three dimensions into these extra dimensions. We’ll see a loss of energy that can’t be accounted for.”

God particles and sparticles, vibrating strings and eleven-dimensional hyperspace… One would think that pushing back to the big bang, re-creating energetic conditions that haven’t prevailed in this universe since the first nanosecond of its existence, would be an achievement in and of itself. But it seems that, like the big bang itself, the LHC’s powerful potential is merely a means to far more interesting ends. And it may end up producing more questions than answers.

Discovering the Unknown Unknowns

“I think a clear tracking of the Higgs is highly probable, but the evidence for extra spatial dimensions is very likely to be ambiguous at best.” The voice is that of complexity theorist and cosmologist James N. Gardner, speaking from his home in Portland, Oregon. A regular contributor to this magazine, Gardner is the author of Biocosm and The Intelligent Universe, two cosmological tomes that explore the progressively central role that consciousness, life, and intelligence play in the evolution of the universe. Curious to hear his opinion of CERN’s big bang machine, I ask him what he thinks are the most compelling discoveries the device might stumble upon.

“I think that the most interesting things,” he says, “will be what former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called the ‘unk unks,’ or the ‘unknown unknowns’—things we don’t know that we don’t know.” Gardner goes on to give me an example of such a fortuitous and unexpected revelation. In 1964, two scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were attempting to calibrate a sensitive new radio antenna at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. But they were perplexed by some strange and steady background radio static that persisted, day and night, and seemed to have no discernible point of origin. Believing the static had to be the result of a mechanical error, the two diligently scraped all the accumulated pigeon droppings off the surface of the twenty-foot antenna, yet the static stubbornly remained. When some astrophysicists at nearby Princeton University were finally consulted for an explanation, they had a ready answer: the just-predicted “cosmic microwave background radiation,” the faint electromagnetic echo left behind by the primordial inferno that gave birth to our universe. Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize for their discovery, which provided tremendous support for the legitimacy of the big bang, a theory that has radically recontextualized our sense of humanity’s place in the grand evolving scheme of space and time, matter and mind.

Does the LHC have the potential to expand our horizons on a similar scale? Few people realize that only eighty-five years ago, it was by no means certain that a universe existed beyond the boundary of our own Milky Way galaxy. The American astronomer Edwin Hubble publicly ended that “great debate” on January 1, 1925, by announcing his telescopic observations of other galaxies existing far outside our own. Seventy years later, the space telescope named in his honor continued to stretch the boundaries of known reality—and human consciousness along with it—providing dazzling, soul-swooning photographs of distant spiral galaxies, star clusters, quasars, and countless colorful nebulae, some of which were caught in the act of giving birth to solar systems much like our own. It’s now common knowledge that we exist in an unimaginably vast universe (roughly ninety-four billion light-years in diameter and expanding faster every day under the force of a mysterious “dark energy”), populated by billions and billions of galaxies (interlinked across the universe by a subtle, invisible lattice of “dark matter”), and that each galaxy contains billions and billions of solar systems teeming with innumerable planets (and almost certainly other life forms too).

What new expansions of cosmos and consciousness await us with the LHC, that seventeen-mile-long microscope peering into the innermost spaces of the manifest world? Will we find evidence of other dimensions? Exotic new kinds of particles? Or perhaps, as Gardner suggests, something completely unimaginable and unforeseen?

“The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical,” Einstein once wrote. “It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”

The LHC easily inspires similar sentiments. The more one learns about it, the more one can’t help experiencing a humbling sense of astonishment. The sheer magnitude, beauty, and complexity of this audacious human endeavor consistently boggle the mind. “It’s a classic instance of good ‘big science,’ ” says Gardner. “It’s not like a solitary Einstein or Newton pondering the nature of the universe, but a team of thousands and thousands of engineers and physicists linking their arms together to tackle some truly monumental experimental terrain.”

“The LHC really will allow us to peer into a realm of space that’s just been inaccessible,” he continues. “We might discover new things that are completely unanticipated as we penetrate closer to the conditions that existed right at the brink of the big bang, at the cusp of time zero. We just don’t know. And to me, that’s really the most exciting part of it—that there are literally no paths to follow on this quest. It really is a new frontier.”

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