GENEVA, Sept 20 (Xinhua) — The atom-smasher designed to probe into the origins of the universe was forced to shut down for two months after a helium leak, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) said Saturday.

    Preliminary investigation showed that the possible cause of Friday’s helium leak into the tunnel on the Swiss-French border, where the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) machine was located, is a faulty electrical connection between two magnets.

    “A full investigation is underway but it is already clear that the sector will have to be warmed up for repairs to take place. This implies a minimum of two months down time,” said CERN.

    “Strict safety regulations ensured that at no time was there any risk to people,” it said.

    The atom-smashing machine, which began its operation last Wednesday under minus 271.3 degrees Celsius, was built to simulate the conditions of the “Big Bang” that recreated the universe.

Via Xinhua.

While the rest of you are worrying about punks like Ahmadinejad, scientists are arguing about whether a lab experiment will result in the Earth being swallowed by a Black Hole:

MEYRIN, Switzerland (AP) — The most powerful atom-smasher ever built could make some bizarre discoveries, such as invisible matter or extra dimensions in space, after it is switched on in August.

But some critics fear the Large Hadron Collider could exceed physicists’ wildest conjectures: Will it spawn a black hole that could swallow Earth?

Or spit out particles that could turn the planet into a hot dead clump?

Ridiculous, say scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French initials CERN — some of whom have been working for a generation on the $5.8 billion collider, or LHC.

“Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on,” said project leader Lyn Evans.

David Francis, a physicist on the collider’s huge ATLAS particle detector, smiled when asked whether he worried about black holes and hypothetical killer particles known as strangelets.

“If I thought that this was going to happen, I would be well away from here,” he said.

The collider basically consists of a ring of supercooled magnets 17 miles in circumference attached to huge barrel-shaped detectors. The ring, which straddles the French and Swiss border, is buried 330 feet underground.

The machine, which has been called the largest scientific experiment in history, isn’t expected to begin test runs until August, and ramping up to full power could take months. But once it is working, it is expected to produce some startling findings.

Scientists plan to hunt for signs of the invisible “dark matter” and “dark energy” that make up more than 96 percent of the universe, and hope to glimpse the elusive Higgs boson, a so-far undiscovered particle thought to give matter its mass.

The collider could find evidence of extra dimensions, a boon for superstring theory, which holds that quarks, the particles that make up atoms, are infinitesimal vibrating strings.

The theory could resolve many of physics‘ unanswered questions, but requires about 10 dimensions — far more than the three spatial dimensions our senses experience.

The safety of the collider, which will generate energies seven times higher than its most powerful rival, at Fermilab near Chicago, has been debated for years. The physicist Martin Rees has estimated the chance of an accelerator producing a global catastrophe at one in 50 million — long odds, to be sure, but about the same as winning some lotteries.

By contrast, a CERN team this month issued a report concluding that there is “no conceivable danger” of a cataclysmic event. The report essentially confirmed the findings of a 2003 CERN safety report, and a panel of five prominent scientists not affiliated with CERN, including one Nobel laureate, endorsed its conclusions.

Critics of the LHC filed a lawsuit in a Hawaiian court in March seeking to block its startup, alleging that there was “a significant risk that … operation of the Collider may have unintended consequences which could ultimately result in the destruction of our planet.”

One of the plaintiffs, Walter L. Wagner, a physicist and lawyer, said Wednesday CERN’s safety report, released June 20, “has several major flaws,” and his views on the risks of using the particle accelerator had not changed.

On Tuesday, U.S. Justice Department lawyers representing the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation filed a motion to dismiss the case.

The two agencies have contributed $531 million to building the collider, and the NSF has agreed to pay $87 million of its annual operating costs. Hundreds of American scientists will participate in the research.

The lawyers called the plaintiffs’ allegations “extraordinarily speculative,” and said “there is no basis for any conceivable threat” from black holes or other objects the LHC might produce. A hearing on the motion is expected in late July or August.

In rebutting doomsday scenarios, CERN scientists point out that cosmic rays have been bombarding the earth, and triggering collisions similar to those planned for the collider, since the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.

And so far, Earth has survived.

“The LHC is only going to reproduce what nature does every second, what it has been doing for billions of years,” said John Ellis, a British theoretical physicist at CERN.

Critics like Wagner have said the collisions caused by accelerators could be more hazardous than those of cosmic rays.

Both may produce micro black holes, subatomic versions of cosmic black holes — collapsed stars whose gravity fields are so powerful that they can suck in planets and other stars.

But micro black holes produced by cosmic ray collisions would likely be traveling so fast they would pass harmlessly through the earth.

Micro black holes produced by a collider, the skeptics theorize, would move more slowly and might be trapped inside the earth’s gravitational field — and eventually threaten the planet.

Ellis said doomsayers assume that the collider will create micro black holes in the first place, which he called unlikely. And even if they appeared, he said, they would instantly evaporate, as predicted by the British physicist Stephen Hawking.

As for strangelets, CERN scientists point out that they have never been proven to exist. They said that even if these particles formed inside the Collider they would quickly break down.

When the LHC is finally at full power, two beams of protons will race around the huge ring 11,000 times a second in opposite directions. They will travel in two tubes about the width of fire hoses, speeding through a vacuum that is colder and emptier than outer space.

Their trajectory will be curved by supercooled magnets — to guide the beams around the rings and prevent the packets of protons from cutting through the surrounding magnets like a blowtorch.

The paths of these beams will cross, and a few of the protons in them will collide, at a series of cylindrical detectors along the ring. The two largest detectors are essentially huge digital cameras, each weighing thousands of tons, capable of taking millions of snapshots a second.

Each year the detectors will generate 15 petabytes of data, the equivalent of a stack of CDs 12 miles tall. The data will require a high speed global network of computers for analysis.

Wagner and others filed a lawsuit to halt operation of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state in 1999. The courts dismissed the suit.

The leafy campus of CERN, a short drive from the shores of Lake Geneva, hardly seems like ground zero for doomsday. And locals don’t seem overly concerned. Thousands attended an open house here this spring.

“There is a huge army of scientists who know what they are talking about and are sleeping quite soundly as far as concerns the LHC,” said project leader Evans.

Via CNN.  I’m fine with this whole thing — except for that last part about a “huge army of scientists.”  That’s almost as scary as swarms of shape-shifting micro-robots.

Many a sci-fi flick portrays a future Earth becoming victimized by an army of brain-sucking mutants from outer space.  Turns out that brain-sucking is occurring a little closer to home in real life, and it has nothing to do with alien mutants:

While the 20th century had the arms race, the competition in this century will be a brains race, says science policy analyst Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society.  ‘Today’s Sputnik? It’s a little bigger. It’s called China’.  Twenty years ago the United States, Japan and China each graduated a similar number of engineers, with South Korea graduating about half as many. By 2000, Japan has increased its output by 42% to 103,200, South Korea has recorded an 140% increase to 57,650 engineers, according to Jischke. In contrast, the number of US engineering graduates had declined by 20% to less than 60,000. In 2004, China graduated 500,000 engineers, India, 200,000, and North America, 70,000, says a National Academy of Sciences report. If this trend persists, then by 2010 more than 90% of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia, fears Jischke. Besides, one US chemist’s or engineer’s salary is enough to hire five Chinese chemists or 11 Indian engineers.

See Subbiah Arunachalam’s editorial in Current Science from March 2006.  Arunchalam says Americans needn’t worry about this somewhat distressing development — it will be years before India and China overtake America as a world center of technological innovation.  As a world creator of jobs, however … well, let’s just say that Arunchalam doesn’t worry about an increase in unemployment statistics among scientists and engineers in India or China in the near future.

Meanwhile, the U.S. lost jobs in May for a fifth month in a row, and the unemployment rate rose by the most in more than two decades, according U.S. Labor Department figures released on Friday.

Swarms of robots that use electromagnetic forces to cling together and assume different shapes are being developed by US researchers.The grand goal is to create swarms of microscopic robots capable of morphing into virtually any form by clinging together.

Seth Goldstein, who leads the research project at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, in the US, admits this is still a distant prospect.

However, his team is using simulations to develop control strategies for futuristic shape-shifting, or “claytronic”, robots, which they are testing on small groups of more primitive, pocket-sized machines.

These prototype robots use electromagnetic forces to manoeuvre themselves, communicate, and even share power.

Full article here. There’s nothing that’ll give me a sounder night’s sleep tonight than to know that some of our finest scientific minds are working on swarms of shape-shifting micro-robots. In fact, I can’t figure out why modern science hasn’t made swarms of shape-shifting micro-robots a greater priority already! We should have had a NASA program to build swarms of shape-shifting micro-robots YEARS AGO!!!

Some scientists think the universe is overdue for a quantum energy shift that would cause everything to cease to exist. A shift is not thought to be likely though, because the universe has lasted for such a long time and is still here.


But U.S. physicist Professor Lawrence Krauss, from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and colleague James Dent, from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, fear that in the last 10 years astronomers may inadvertently have nudged the cosmos into a more dangerous state.


The reason has to do with the odd way quantum states are affected by observation. In the famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, a cat in a box whose fate is decided by subatomic particles is both alive and dead until someone lifts the lid and observes it.


Only then is the cat discovered to be either “alive” or “dead”.


According to a law known as the “quantum Zeno effect”, whenever we observe or measure something at the quantum level we set its decay clock back to zero.

The physicists calculated that observing the effects of dark energy may have reset the universe’s decay clock.

Full article here.  On the other hand, a watched pot never boils.  Who ya gonna believe?  Schrodinger and his cat, or Bartlett and his book of quotations?

Apparently the UN, and some lawyers and insurance agents, will decide who will be in charge if an asteroid hits the Earth:

A draft UN treaty to determine what would have to be done if a giant asteroid was on a collision course with Earth is to be drawn up this year.

The document would set out global policies including who should be in charge of plans to deflect any object.

It is the brainchild of the Association of Space Explorers, a professional body for astronauts and cosmonauts.

At the moment, Nasa is monitoring 127 near-Earth objects (NEO) that have a possibility of hitting the Earth.

The association has asked a group of scientists, lawyers, diplomats and insurance experts to draw up the recommendations.

See full article here.

Kim Jong Il is neither insane nor stupid.From the CIA’s psychological profilers to his many biographers, experts who have studied the North Korean leader believe that beneath the glaring eccentricities — the bouffant hairdo and the oddball Mao suits — there is a shrewd operator at work.

Despite an image as a “nut with a nuke,” as some bloggers have disparaged him, the 64-year-old Kim appears to have carefully orchestrated his country’s path to nuclear sovereignty.

If the announced test is confirmed, one of the world’s poorest and most dysfunctional countries will have become an unlikely gate crasher in the exclusive club of nuclear powers.

That is an achievement Kim apparently believes will ensure the top item on his agenda: maintaining power.

In Kim’s eyes, a nuclear weapon should prevent the United States from attempting to topple him from his post in the manner of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. And the indomitable mystique of nuclear capability could in part substitute for the charisma that Kim, unlike his late father, Kim Il Sung, is lacking.

“In the eyes of the North Korean leaders, this was very calculated and rational behavior,” said Paik Hak-soon, a political scientist at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. “Nobody invades a nuclear power. People respect nuclear power.”

Biographers over the years have frequently made the point that Kim Jong Il did not merely inherit power, he fought for it. Short, dumpy and lacking in charm, the younger Kim had to contend with other possible successors before taking over in 1994 upon the death of his father.

Far less popular domestically than Kim Il Sung, he also has had his hands full staying in control — especially given the economic basket case that North Korea became on his watch. It is unclear as well whether he will be able to pass on power to any of his three sons.

Jerrold M. Post, founder of the CIA’s Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior who now teaches at George Washington University, says Kim has had a tough act to follow because of a North Korean propaganda machine that extolled his father as a god.

“You have other world leaders whose fathers led before them — King Abdullah of Jordan, Bashar Assad of Syria — but their job pales in comparison to Kim Jong Il…. He had to be the son of God and to sustain the charismatic cult of personality,” Post said.

A psychiatrist by training, Post does not believe that Kim is psychotic but that he has a dangerous personality disorder that Post diagnoses as “malign narcissism.” As such, Kim has loyalty only to himself and lacks the ability to consider other people’s feelings.

Full article here.

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