Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Possibilities of the Large Hadron Collider

The 27-kilometer tunnel/science experiment underneath Switzerland and France, known as the Large Hadron Collider, is now up and running. While there have been some setbacks, the world scientific community waits anxiously for the upcoming experiments in particle physics to start yielding data. The new CERN collider is an exciting moment for world science. It may open up realms of physics which were previously only the subject of conjecture.

So what might an extraterrestrial take from the $8 billion underground testing center? You would suppose that they might first evaluate the project on the basis of what they already know. Will these tests, the action of colliding particles at near the speed of light, produce results that will advance our scientific understanding? Will it revolutionize physics? Might it create new scientific paradigms that advance our technology to a degree not seen yet in our history?

If the answer is yes then an extraterrestrial might be watching with a degree of apprehension. After all, we barely survived the advent of the nuclear age without wide scale nuclear war. That threat is still a great concern, no matter how the world political stage may have changed since the Cold War. Can we really be trusted with major new technological advances? You would imagine that any extraterrestrial civilization evaluating the planet Earth would look closely at our scientific achievements and our technological development, and of course how we use that development. World politics, especially in the use of military hardware, plays a big role in how technology can hurt us or help us. And for extraterrestrials it would not just be a matter of what we might do to ourselves, but what we might do to them if they were to reveal their presence. Perhaps the Hadron Collider is a real threat? Scientific discoveries could put us on a track to jump the huge hurdles of practical interstellar travel. Even if that level of technological advancement was many years off, just starting on the path to discovery could be threatening.

The flip side is that this could be another milestone which will help to decide if it is time for First Contact. If the Hadron Collider does advance our science to the point of being able to join a larger universal civilization, of which we currently know nothing about, then perhaps this is an appropriate time to say hello? The LHC computing grid will be one of the largest information sharing systems ever devised. Just the very action of collecting and distributing the data from the Hadron Collider experiments will likely move our information technology ahead in great leaps. These developments could be some of the fundamental building blocks of an advanced scientific civilization prepared to take a role in the connected universe.

There is one other factor of which you would imagine an extraterrestrial civilization would take note. CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research, but it is a very international collaboration involving thousands of scientists and dozens of universities and research centers. Newsweek says:

“The LHC has transformed Geneva into something of a scientific mecca. According to CERN, more than 9,000 scientists have been working on the project, not only from nearby Europe but from countries as diverse as India, Russia, Japan, Israel and Turkey.”

This is arguably the largest international scientific collaboration in the history of humankind. It says great things about the cooperation of the world scientific community and the ability of humans to overcome national boundaries to move forward as one civilization. As many nations competing and conflicted we move in low gear on the highway towards advanced civilization. As one world, connected and supporting, we move into a higher gear and perhaps attract the notice of extraterrestrial observers.

I know there are many assumptions here. Perhaps we are alone or at least impossibly distanced from any other sentient beings. While this is probably the case, it is still fun to consider the big what if: what if we are merely locked away in small room, in an unpopulated corner of an apartment building, with our shades drawn and contemplating only ourselves? And meanwhile, just outside on the street is an entire universe teeming with life. What if someone pulls up the shade, comes into our room, and says hello? What if…

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