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CERN: LHC to fire first proton-smash ray next month

Hadron headbanger machine chilled to ramming speed

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Scientists operating from a hollowed-out lair deep beneath the Franco-Swiss border have announced that their enormous, unprecedentedly powerful 27-kilometre proton cannon will shortly be ready to open fire. To be precise, "first beam" is scheduled for 10 September.

Uncharacteristically, perhaps, the boffins made their announcement via a normal press release rather than by seizing command of TV broadcasts. The traditional demand for a colossal sum of money to be paid by the world's governments on pain of cities erased hourly was also omitted - perhaps because these boffins have already received such funds in order to build their immense machine.

In fact, the mighty particle accelerator, officially named the Large Hadron Collider, is not designed as a doomsday weapon. Rather, it is intended to play exceptionally violent and scientific games of sub-atomic curveball billiards, in which protons will barrel round corners and smack into one another at close to light speed. This will cause them to explode, hurling various kinds of mysterious sub-subatomic gubbins in all directions.

It's hoped that premier-league boffins operating vast, essentially incomprehensible machines - thought likely to feature flashing lights and screens - in massive underground caverns will be able to monitor the resulting hail of hadron-smash frag: Dark matter, "god particles" and so forth. This will, of course, produce vast streams of data which will need to be analysed by titanic computer arrays worldwide, after which it is confidently expected that the whole of physics and possibly everything else will be found to have been wrong. Which is excellent, obviously - we're hoping for some kind of anti-grav technology out of this at the very least, if not stardrive.

However, not everyone loves the LHC. There are those - for instance eccentric Hawaii-based botanist Walter L Wagner, embroiled in a legal tussle with his former employers at the Umauma Gardens - who reckon that the LHC is, actually, a doomsday weapon after all. Wagner believes that excessively violent proton-bothering could spit out other things than the relatively mellow Higgs boson, dark matter and other anticipated treats.

He theorises (and he is a physics minor from Berkeley) that blundering boffinry bosses at the LHC's controls might catapult the entire Earth through a rent in the very fabric of reality into another and more hostile universe; perhaps one in which basic processes essential to life - for instance brewing - couldn't work, or where peckish man-eating dinosaurs ruled. Alternatively, meddling atom-smasher chiefs might inadvertently compact the Earth and human race down to the size of a pea - using a black hole, duh - rashly turn the planet and perhaps the entire galaxy into soup*, or unleash a runaway plague of magnetic monopoles.

International science alliance CERN, in control of the hadron-puncher, merely curls a supercilious lip at these concerns. The globo-brainboxes say they're almost good to go, having successfully frozen down the miles of superconducting magno-pipe necessary to power up their proton beams to warp speed. (The superconductors need to be at almost absolute zero to function.)

"Force majeure notwithstanding," says the CERN statement, "the LHC will see its first circulating beam on 10 September at the injection energy of 450 giga-electron-volts."

Once both clockwise and anticlockwise circulating beams are up, with protons barrelling round the whole 27-km loop at suitably outrageous rpms, it will be time to start letting them crash into each other and watch the hadro-frag fly. Assuming the universe doesn't vanish or anything, the boffins will then gradually turn a control (which we imagine to be called the "Big Knob") winding the beams up into the multiple tera-electron-volt range, at which time the ricochetting proton debris should start to become really weird. It's probably too much to expect that any bystanders will suddenly acquire superpowers, be catapulted into other dimensions, turn into cheese etc., but one can always hope.

Excellent news all round. ®

* Strangelet soup, that is.

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