Thursday, September 11, 2008

LHC, Higgs, Hicks, Asimov, Creation and Entropy

Yesterday I blogged about one of my favorite stories, "The Last Question" by the late great grandfather of Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov, which raises the question whether or not entropy can be reversed.

The word "entropy" is derived from the Greek εντροπία "a turning toward" (εν- "in" + τροπή "a turning"), but it's a slightly different matter than the virtual world of Entropia we're talking about here (but may have been their inspiration). What we're dealing with here is:

"As a finite universe may be considered an isolated system, it may be subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, so that its total entropy is constantly increasing. It has been speculated that the universe is fated to a heat death in which all the energy ends up as a homogeneous distribution of thermal energy, so that no more work can be extracted from any source.

If the universe can be considered to have generally increasing entropy, then - as Roger Penrose has pointed out - gravity plays an important role in the increase because gravity causes dispersed matter to accumulate into stars, which collapse eventually into black holes. Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking have shown that black holes have the maximum possible entropy of any object of equal size. This makes them likely end points of all entropy-increasing processes, if they are totally effective matter and energy traps. Hawking has, however, recently changed his stance on this aspect." [wikipedia]

In Asimov's story, all energy is consumed at the end, time no longer exists and the universe is once more cold and void, as it was in the beginning, Creation has expanded untill it could no more and returned to it's cradle. This is why the story came to me after first blogging the LHC testrun.

The LHC, or Large Hadron Collider is supposed to simulate what that 'cradle' looked like, how the universe looked like just after the 'big bang' (if you buy that stuff - I'm more a Creationist), hence I wondered if the LHC would answer Asimov's question: What happens when the lights go out, how do you turn them back on? Surprisingly, Asimov an immensely laureated scientist and outspoken atheist gave the answer, using the words of Divine Creation:

"Let there be light - and there was light."

I decided to ask Dr. Kenneth Hicks from the Ohio University (a well respected scientist, yet humble enough to point out it's the Higgs Particle we're dealing with, not the Hicks particle):

"Regarding Asimov's short story, The Last Question, this is a great one to think about. While the LHC will not answer all of our questions about the Big Bang and the eventual fate of the universe, the LHC's results will get us a
little bit closer to a fundamental understanding of what happened at the earliest moments of the Big Bang.

Actually, Asimov's story is much more relevant to the people who study black holes, such as Stephen Hawking, who at one time claimed that some entropy was lost near a black hole (later, it was shown that entropy is still OK even in the highly distorted space-time of a black hole).

Progress in sience is slow when it comes to answering the big questions, like those posed in Asimov's story. Still, it's a great story to read, and very thought-provoking."

Whatever happens when the LHC is fully up and running, it won't produce a functioning red button that says: 'Switch light of the universe back on', but maybe bring us a wee bit closer to understanding how this magnificent universe works.

For now, I think I've said enough on the LHC (or Doomsday Device as you like) and the Higgs particle. Thanks to Dr. Hicks for his immediate response. Perhaps I'll return to Asimov's "Last Question" once more as I'd like to see how Asimov's Biblical conclusion to the story (let there be light) holds up against these hardcore scientists. Finally, again, the link to the online version of Asimov's short story at Multivac.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Will LHC answer Asimov's Last Question?

Scientists at CERN have sucessfully run a first test on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and several particle beams made a looping. In the previous article I wrote about some people running about shouting "Doomsday Coming", but we're still here. For now...

For now, as this was only a stationary run of the LHC. After a series of tests they will start shooting multiple beams into the tube and corresponding crashes might still trigger a black hole to appear in Geneva. So please pick your favourite date for doomsday fast.

The thing is, after watching this testrun almost become a new media-hype memories of an old tale came back to me, a story written by Isaac Asimov - in the days that Gates and Jobs didn't even know the smell of diapers yet - which is called...

"The Last Question"

This story first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly and was reprinted in the collections Nine Tomorrows (1959), The Best of Isaac Asimov (1973) and Robot Dreams (1986), as well as the retrospective Opus 100 (1969).

The Last Question” is a story of a computer with exceptional intelligence, the Multivac, presented with a recurring question through many stages of history, “Can entropy ever be reversed?”

Without spoiling the story, “The Last Question” is a wonderful glimpse into the technological singularity towards which we are accelerating.

Apparently, it was one of Asimov's own favorites as well:

Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn’t have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of thing endears any story to any writer. Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I can give them the name of a story, which they think I may have written, and tell them where to find it. They don’t remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably “The Last Question”. This has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who began, “Dr. Asimov, there’s a story I think you wrote, whose title I can’t remember—” at which point I interrupted to tell him it was “The Last Question” and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.

-Isaac Asimov, 1973

You can read the full story at Multivac. Ever since I read this story I have wondered why an acclaimed scientist and outspoken atheist like Asimov would conclude with the very words of Divine Creation "Let There Be Light"

The Question the short story deals with, is "can entropy ever be reversed?" I wonder what Dr. Hick's view would be on this. Would the LHC hold the answer to Asimov's Last Question?

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LHC: Higgs and Hubs

Beam me up Scotty

Today is a hail from a different verse. It's not from the one of the virtual worlds of the metaverse, nor even a representation, a shade of our own in the paraverse, but hypothetically a glance back into the birth of our own universe: It's the first LHC beam day at CERN, the European Institute for Nuclear Research.

I received updates of the first beam-day through @CERN on twitter:

  • It's LHC first beam day. Beams at the door of the LHC, ready for first injection.
  • 9:30. First beam injected and stopped at 1/8 of a circuit. Loud applause in the control room.
  • 10:00 The beam has now done half a lap. Still going well. This is the big moment. Next injection should one full circuit.
  • 10:25, 10 September 2008. Historic moment. The LHC first beam has just circulated. Amazing moment.
  • 13:55, the LHC's second beam is now on its way.
  • 15:02, that's it. Second beam all the way round and the LHC is up and running.

The big question is, what's so special about this LHC, or Large Hadron Collider in full. The LHC is a 27 km. tube circling around (or actually under) Geneva where 9.000 scientists at Cern pull a stunt with boosting a particle beam almost at the speed of light. The particles should round the circle about 10.000 times per second, so it's over before you know it even started.

The thing is, it costs over 6 billion and it took 30 years to build this thing which has all sorts of nice gadgets, like the Atlas, a snappy photocamera which makes about a million snapshots per second to try and 'capture' particles crashing into eachother. Does this make sense to you? Well here's a little cartoon to explain a little more.

Today was first beam day, so only one particle beam was shot, it'll take some time before they actually start shooting beams at eachother, but expectations are that what happens then either resembles armageddon or the start of the galaxy, just after the 'big bang'. Problem is, they don't have verified testdata on how stuff looked like back then.

Higgs and Hubs

One of the key elements scientists will be seeking is the mysterious socalled Higgs-particle (dubbed the 'god-particle' by some) which should be the basic building block for all matter in the universe. Every self-respecting Physicists will be examining testdata from the LHC in the coming years, and they're estimating several Petabytes of data will be pumped round the world a year. Central distribution point for every non-European institute will be the Netherlands:

But we'll have to wait and see if there still will be the Netherlands, as some see doomsday coming when CERN actually starts crashing beams. Some say there's a risk, that when the beams collide a black hole will start to form in Geneva. Here's Dr. Kenneth Hicks view on things:

"I have been asked by friends if the LHC poses a threat to mankind. Some scientists have predicted that miniature black holes could be produced when so much mass is created in such a small volume by the collision of two high-speed protons.

Mother Nature can answer this speculation. So-called "cosmic rays" constantly pelt Earth. These rays actually are high-energy protons accelerated to high speeds by galactic forces, such as supernova explosions.

While the exact physical mechanism that ramps up cosmic rays to nearly the speed of light is unclear, the fact remains that some cosmic rays can exceed the speeds of even our most powerful accelerators.

Such rays are rare, but they do hit Earth.

Nature has been colliding protons all along at energies that exceed those created by particle accelerators. Miniature black holes might gobble up Earth in a science-fiction movie, but not in real life.

The advantage of the LHC is that protons can be collided in a controlled way, surrounded by huge particle detectors. The goal is to probe a new range of matter and perhaps discover new forms of matter.

Many particle physicists are expecting to see a new type of matter at the LHC, called super-symmetric particles. It is possible that the lightest of these particles might be connected to the dark matter of the universe.

If these new particles are discovered, they might explain the subatomic structure of dark matter."

Read the full article at the Columbus Dispatch.

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