Monday, April 12, 2010

A Message from the Future

I'm strolling leisurely along the darkest corridors of the web in search of nuggets of information for my radio program tomorrow. Newscaster Pedro Ferriz asked me to talk about the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world, which has made headlines now for 14 months, since it's opening -and subsequent failure- in September, 2008.

I come across a blog in portuguese (from Portugal? from Brazil? I'm guessing Brazil...). A post in that blog reports that a few days ago a strange young man was arrested by Swiss police after he tried to sabotage the LHC. Sabotaging the LHC is not easy. The thing lies hundreds of meters underground, and the facilities are protected by heavy security, but the blogger does not go into details. The would-be saboteur may have tried to tamper with the power grid in the region (though I don't know how he might manage even that...). When questioned, the strange-looking young man -who was decked in even stranger-looking clothes- claimed he was a visitor from the future. His mission was to stop the LHC from creating the Higgs boson, a particle expected to appear after protons and antiprotons collide at great speed, sometime between today and 2012. Apparently, if the chronotraveler is not wrong, the Higgs boson will bring forth great destruction ("and gnashing of teeth," one is tempted to add, like in the Bible).

It would be great if we could believe this young man from the future. Indeed, if he is right, that means that the Higgs boson really does exist! The LHC was built to answer that question. Now we can all relax and maybe even break out the champagne.

Or maybe not. Scientists don't plan multibillion-dollar experiments just to be proven right. They will be happy if nature presents them with the Higgs, which was predicted theoretically more than 40 years ago, but what would really give them a champagne-worthy thrill is to be proven wrong. Nothing makes for more exciting times in science than the discovery that everything we thought we knew is not so. If, after 20 years of work on the collider, not to mention the billions of dollars it cost, the thing only tells the scientists they were right, and nothing more, it will actually be a catastrophe. A confirmed prediction is a sort of dead end. No new roads to take, no different outlooks to pursue. No new scientific work to do. Scientists like surprises. And they thrive on challenge. If the Higgs turns out not to exist, the discovery will immediately suggest new paths and it will open wide vistas of possibility. That means a lot of work for a lot of people, young and old. Even Peter Higgs -who is pushing 81- might join in on the action (though he would probably miss his shot at the Nobel Prize).

So, even if the saboteur from the future is correct, we should not stash the LHC in the closet. Let's go looking for new lands. Let's risk being awfully wrong after 40 years. That's what science is about.