A Quick and Painless Black Hole

Question: What makes the Large Hadron Collider an important advance?

Melissa Franklin: Well, on the one hand, it’s just higher energy. Fermilab has a center of mass energy, total center matching 2TEV and Large Hadron Collider is 14TEV when it’s finally, after a while it will be 14 TEV. So, you’re just going to a higher energy which means you can really probe smaller distances, which you can make higher mass particles because you’ve got more energy. And so just from an experimentalist point of view, it’s just way cooler and we probably will see something interesting. From a theorist point of view, it reaches the energy where they say this symmetry breaking cause must show itself. It has to show itself, actually there’s an argument that probability is violated. The probability will be greater than one, unless we see something happening. So those are the two different views. So, in fact, the Large Hadron Collider is going to start at a lower energy than 14 TEVs, its going to start at 7 because there are some technical problems. And a lot of the experimentalists are still incredibly happy because for us it’s something new. You’re looking somewhere you’ve never looked before and it’s fascinating to see. The theorists are a little bit more grumpy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in the New York Times and stuff, they’re very grumpy and they’re saying, “This is unacceptable.” Like I can’t believe it’s not going to turn on you and I’m getting old. That kind of a thing. So, those are the two different views. But everybody’s excited that it will turn on. It’s extremely difficult. These machines are extremely complicated. It’s extremely difficult to get them up and running. It usually takes a couple of years.

Question: What cool things could the LHC reveal?

Melissa Franklin: Okay, so I’m just interested to see what happens. There’s these string theorists, you probably know about them because they’re often in the news. And apparently they’re very smart. And they say there’s a new symmetry, which is very exciting. A new space-time symmetry called Super Symmetry so for all the particles we have they’re a Super Particle partners. Okay? Now, the symmetry would say that the Super Particle partners would have exactly the same mass as the particles, but that’s not true. We already know that. So, there’s a symmetry breaking there. But the String Theorists believe the Super Symmetry must exist even if incredibly badly broke. So they are absolutely hoping that we will find Super Symmetry and we are absolutely looking for them. And so, there’s a lot of experimentalists who do what the theorists say, unfortunately. And they are looking for Super Symmetry. And there’s other people who are looking – more renegade and I don’t know what they will find – or I will find.

Question: Is it a legitimate fear that the LHC could create an Earth-consuming black hole?

Melissa Franklin: Well, it’s a great idea, and people have written papers you know ten years ago. Could you create a really tiny black hole at a collider? And then the problem we were always thinking of, well how – this is funny because we were always thinking, well how would you know that you had created a black hole? Because it would decay immediately into – not only would decay, it would decay into hundreds of particles all very low energy and how could you tell? So, we were always thinking of not of the problem of creating a black hole, but how would we possibly see it before it’s completely gone? And we convinced ourselves that Fermilab for instance that we couldn’t. We wouldn’t even know if we made black holes. So, it was a big surprise to me that all of a sudden people were really worried that we were doing to make one so big that not only would we see it, but that it would devour the whole earth. So, I mean [you can] put out a report that says that the likelihood is incredibly small, but still you can’t say it’s zero. But I think it would be fast. It might be an interesting way to go. You wouldn’t have a lot of time to worry like in all those apocalyptic films where it takes a long time. So, I just tell the people that it’s incredible – the probability is incredibly small, and on the other hand, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Question: When the LHC opens, what will happen to Fermilab?

Melissa Franklin: A children’s toy – Well Fermilab is still running. And in fact, Fermiab is going to continue running until we actually see that the LHC is working. It’ll probably run for another year. It’s possible you could see the Higgs Boson if you are very lucky. It’s possible – and it’s there. It’s possible that you could see it at Fermilab, but it’s very unlikely. I don’t know. There’s so few people working on the collider at Fermilab now it might be hard to find anything. I guess it is sad. I worked on that for 25 years.

Question: Will it be hard to say goodbye?

Melissa Franklin: I have a problem separating. Yeah, I guess so. Actually, more than 25 years. It’s sad.

Recorded on: October 21, 2009

Will the new Large Hadron Collider create an earth-consuming black hole? Highly unlikely, says the Harvard physicist, but if it did, "it wouldn’t be so bad."

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."