Few pursuits seem as fraught with failure as predicting the unpredictable, particularly the end of the world. Some of the prognosticators are apparently scholars, as they have an alphabet soup of letters appended to their name; others are New Age pseudo-scientists temporarily visiting this consciousness until their spacecraft retrieves them. All seem to be earning a living misinterpreting Bible prophecies or inanely retrofitting current events to match the foretokens of Nostradamus, or of secret societies like the Illuminati and the Rosicrucians — though I hesitate to include the Rosicrucians here as I have a reverence for any group farsighted enough to have once advertised on the inside of a matchbook cover.
Given the acid test of any prediction—Did it happen or not?! — the year 2008 proved to be a bust for prognosticators: Nostradamus buff John Hogue predicted a global famine, psychic Michael Smith foresaw a super volcano in Washington state or British Columbia erupt, covering the entire Earth in ash. By comparison, Miss Olivia, my 3-year-old Boxer, enjoyed considerable forecasting success pawing at the eventual winner of Major League Baseball games — one of her many uses for The New York Times. Despite these failures and much public derision, predictions continue unabated.
A look at two earlier examples offers some insight into the mindset of the 9/11 hijackers. The August 19, 2001, airing of CBS’s 60 Minutes featured reporter Bob Simon interviewing Hamas operative Muhammad Abu Wardeh, who recruited terrorists for suicide bombings in Israel. Abu Wardeh’s words were translated into English by CBS as follows: “I described to him how God would compensate the martyr for sacrificing his life for his land. If you become a martyr, God will give you 70 virgins, 70 wives and everlasting happiness.”
Never mind that the Koran makes no mention whatsoever of virgins, but 70 of them? Had Abu Wardeh visited my New York City neighborhood, he would have considered revising that number down somewhat. And what of his implied reference to an afterlife? Many religions claim access to this promised land, but the truth is that there is no empirical evidence to prove that it exists — or for that matter any claim regarding its inhabitants.
So then, what should one make of the claims of someone with a rigorous background in science, such as retired German chemist Professor Otto Rossler, who predicted nothing less than the end of the world should CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, test its Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and, at $7 billion, most expensive atom smasher?
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a 17-mile-long doughnut-shaped tunnel that lies near CERN’s Geneva headquarters at depths ranging from 170 to 600 feet. Built to smash sub-atomic particles together at nearly the speed of light, the LHC experiments aim to recreate the conditions that existed a fraction of a second after the Big Bang and provide vital clues to the building blocks of life.
Prof. Rossler feared that the experiment could create a devastating quasar — a mass of energy fueled by several tiny black holes — inside the Earth. “Nothing will happen for at least four years,” he said. “Then someone will spot a light ray coming out of the Indian Ocean during the night and no one will be able to explain it.
“A few weeks later, we will see a similar beam of particles coming out of the soil on the other side of the planet. Then we will know there is a little quasar inside the planet.”
According to Prof. Rossler, as the quasar devours the world from within, the two jets emanating from it will grow and catastrophes such as earthquakes and tsunamis will occur at the points where they emerged from the Earth. “The weather will change completely, wiping out life, and very soon the whole planet will be eaten in a magnificent scenario — if you could watch it from the moon. A Biblical Armageddon. Even cloud and fire will form, as it says in the Bible.”
Prof. Rossler was not alone in his dire prediction, as a handful of scientists believed that the experiment could create a shower of unstable black holes that could “eat” the planet from within. Together they attempted to halt the startup of the LHC through the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that the experiment violated the right to life.
The court, however, rejected calls for a temporary delay on the project, and on September 10, 2008, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider accelerated its first protons amid considerable fanfare.
Inside the control room, physicists and engineers cautiously shot the beam down part of the circular tunnel, stopping it before it completed its loop underneath the villages and cow pastures at the French-Swiss border. One hour after starting up, on the first attempt to send the beam circling all the way around the tunnel, it successfully completed the trip, to raucous applause. Newspapers worldwide reported that the first experiment of the world’s largest atom smasher had gone off without a hitch.
The goal was to finish the initial testing of the LHC and to start doing physics by the end of October 2008, but on September 19, 2008, one of the liquid helium pipes used to keep the superconducting magnets cool sprang a leak. One to two tons of frigid liquid helium leaked out and evaporated. Of the LHC’s 1232 bending magnets, 154 had warmed up as a result of the leak.
These magnets, however, cannot be cooled quickly; they must be “trained.” The LHC magnets are so powerful that their magnetic field tugs on the coils enough to alter their shape. The training process involves slowly increasing the current in the magnets so that the coils can settle into their final position. Each time the magnets warm up they must be retrained and recooled.
CERN reported that the equipment mishap would not endanger the general public. They estimated that 6 months would be required to complete repairs on the damaged equipment and to finish training the magnets. The LHC had not completed its schedule of experiments as a result of the accident, thus the full catalog of experiments would have to begin anew. As of this writing, efforts are again underway in the European Court of Human Rights to halt the experiment.
The LHC itself is scheduled to fire up again sometime in the spring of 2009.