Explosions, scientists arrested for alleged terrorism, mysterious breakdowns — recently Cern’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has begun to look like the world’s most ill-fated experiment.
Is it really nothing more than bad luck or is there something weirder at work? Such speculation generally belongs to the lunatic fringe, but serious scientists have begun to suggest that the frequency of Cern’s accidents and problems is far more than a coincidence.
The LHC, they suggest, may be sabotaging itself from the future — twisting time to generate a series of scientific setbacks that will prevent the machine fulfilling its destiny.
At first sight, this theory fits comfortably into the crackpot tradition linking the start-up of the LHC with terrible disasters. The best known is that the £3 billion particle accelerator might trigger a black hole capable of swallowing the Earth when it gets going. Scientists enjoy laughing at this one.
This time, however, their ridicule has been rather muted — because the time travel idea has come from two distinguished physicists who have backed it with rigorous mathematics.
What Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, are suggesting is that the Higgs boson, the particle that physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be “abhorrent to nature”.
What does that mean? According to Nielsen, it means that the creation of the boson at some point in the future would then ripple backwards through time to put a stop to whatever it was that had created it in the first place.
This, says Nielsen, could explain why the LHC has been hit by mishaps ranging from an explosion during construction to a second big bang that followed its start-up. Whether the recent arrest of a leading physicist for alleged links with Al-Qaeda also counts is uncertain.
Nielsen’s idea has been likened to that of a man travelling back through time and killing his own grandfather. “Our theory suggests that any machine trying to make the Higgs shall have bad luck,” he said.
“It is based on mathematics, but you could explain it by saying that God rather hates Higgs particles and attempts to avoid them.”
His warnings come at a sensitive time for Cern, which is about to make its second attempt to fire up the LHC. The idea is to accelerate protons to almost the speed of light around the machine’s 17-mile underground circular racetrack and then smash them together.
In theory the machine will create tiny replicas of the primordial “big bang” fireball thought to have marked the creation of the universe. But if Nielsen and Ninomiya are right, this latest build-up will inevitably get nowhere, as will those that come after — until eventually Cern abandons the idea altogether.
This is, of course, far from being the first science scare linked to the LHC. Over the years it has been the target of protests, wild speculation and court injunctions.
Fiction writers have naturally seized on the subject. In Angels and Demons, Dan Brown sets out a diabolical plot in which the Vatican City is threatened with annihilation from a bomb based on antimatter stolen from Cern.
Blasphemy, a novel from Douglas Preston, the bestselling science-fiction author, draws on similar themes, with a story about a mad physicist who wants to use a particle accelerator to communicate with God. The physicist may be American and the machine located in America, rather than Switzerland, but the links are clear.
Even Five, the TV channel, has got in on the act by screening FlashForward, an American series based on Robert Sawyer’s novel of the same name in which the start-up of the LHC causes the Earth’s population to black out for two minutes when they experience visions of their personal futures 21 years hence. This gives them a chance to change that future.
Scientists normally hate to see their ideas perverted and twisted by the ignorant, but in recent years many physicists have learnt to welcome the way the LHC has become a part of popular culture. Cern even encourages film-makers to use the machine as a backdrop for their productions, often without charging them.
Nielsen presents them with a dilemma. Should they treat his suggestions as fact or fiction? Most would like to dismiss him, but his status means they have to offer some kind of science-based rebuttal.
James Gillies, a trained physicist who heads Cern’s communications department, said Nielsen’s idea was an interesting theory “but we know it doesn’t happen in reality”.
He explained that if Nielsen’s predictions were correct then whatever was stopping the LHC would also be stopping high-energy rays hitting the atmosphere. Since scientists can directly detect many such rays, “Nielsen must be wrong”, said Gillies.
He and others also believe that although such ideas have an element of fun, they risk distracting attention from the far more amazing ideas that the LHC will tackle once it gets going.
The Higgs boson, for example, is thought to give all other matter its mass, without which gravity could not work. If the LHC found the Higgs, it would open the door to solving all kinds of other mysteries about the origins and nature of matter. Another line of research aims to detect dark matter, which is thought to comprise about a quarter of the universe’s mass, but made out of a kind of particle that has so far proven impossible to detect.
However, perhaps the weirdest of all Cern’s aspirations for the LHC is to investigate extra dimensions of space. This idea, known as string theory, suggests there are many more dimensions to space than the four we can perceive.
At present these other dimensions are hidden, but smashing protons together in the LHC could produce gravitational anomalies, effectively tiny black holes, that would reveal their existence.
Some physicists suggest that when billions of pounds have been spent on the kit to probe such ideas, there is little need to invent new ones about time travel and self-sabotage.
History shows, however, it is unwise to dismiss too quickly ideas that are initially seen as science fiction. Peter Smith, a science historian and author of Doomsday Men, which looks at the links between science and popular culture, points out that what started as science fiction has often become the inspiration for big discoveries.
“Even the original idea of the ‘atomic bomb’ actually came not from scientists but from H G Wells in his 1914 novel The World Set Free,” he said.
“A scientist named Leo Szilard read it in 1932 and it gave him the inspiration to work out how to start the nuclear chain reaction needed to build a bomb. So the atom bomb has some of its origins in literature, as well as research.”
Some of Cern’s leading researchers also take Nielsen at least a little seriously. Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at Manchester University, said: “His ideas are theoretically valid. What he is doing is playing around at the edge of our knowledge, which is a good thing.
“He is pointing out that we don’t yet have a quantum theory of gravity, so we haven’t yet proved rigorously that sending information into the past isn’t possible.
“However, if time travellers do break into the LHC control room and pull the plug out of the wall, then I’ll refer you to my article supporting Nielsen’s theory that I wrote in 2025.”
This weekend, as the interest in his theories continued to grow, Nielsen was sounding more cautious. “We are seriously proposing the idea, but it is an ambitious theory, that’s all,” he said. “We already know it is not very likely to be true. If the LHC actually succeeds in discovering the Higgs boson, I guess we will have to think again.”