If you read about a super high-tech science facility smashing atomic particles together at fantastic speeds and you picture a growing black hole that devours the Earth (!)…you might be a science fiction writer. Either that or a B-movie addict. Or a protestor at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the coming weeks the LHC will do its best to produce some black holes, but they’re not mad scientists planning to destroy the world. Really. What they are hoping for is evidence of parallel universes. As in, universes that exist beyond the four dimensions we know (length, breadth, height, and time). New theories suggest that gravity may leak from our universe into other dimensions (and is the only thing that can travel between them) and the experiment at the LHC is looking for the proof. If microscopic black holes are produced/detected, they will be evidence of the existence of these parallel universes.

Don’t confuse this with the “multi-worlds theory” of quantum mechanics from Hugh Everett in the 1950’s. That theory claims that slightly different universes are being spun off every moment because of all of the possibilities that can exist when a traveling particle comes to a fork in the road and goes both ways. (That idea has inspired lots of alternate history stories and TV shows like Sliders, but it’s not provable.) No, a researcher with the new LHC experiment describes the parallel universes they’re looking for as if our universe is a sheet of paper in a stack of many more sheets of paper.

Of course, I’m always looking for the science fiction take on stories like this. The giant Earth-gobbling black hole is one possibility (and worried enough people that they filed lawsuits to try to stop the Large Hadron Collider from being built). But the idea of micro-miniature black holes intrigues me too. Imagine a series of mysterious deaths in Geneva and their corpses are found to have microscopic tunnels like wormholes tunnelled through them! Of course one of the victims would have to be the lover of one of the experiment’s lead scientists—just to add extra emotional depth, don’t you know. Or maybe gravity goes weird and the city starts looking like the famous M.C. Escher lithograph “Relativity” (with no consistent up or down). What if the combination of the LHC’s magnetic field and the black holes pulls asteroids out of space into collision with Earth? (Some conspiracy theorists are apparently already claiming this.)

Parallel universes offer even more fodder for imagination. Maybe our own universe originally came from one of those. Or perhaps life originated there instead of here. Or perhaps we somehow go there when we die.

OK, OK…most of these are still sounding like B-movie ideas, but you have to admit that the thought of protons smashing together at 99.9% of the speed of light with energies of nearly 12 Tera electron volts does fire the imagination.

The likely reality? The LHC team will detect some things never seen before and add to our knowledge of the universe. The world won’t even hiccup. And that’s good too.


If you follow scientific news at all you probably saw the headlines in September of last year when an experiment done by a particle accelerator at the CERN facilities in Switzerland appeared to show neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light (see my earlier post). A beam of neutrinos sent from the Super Proton Synchotron in Geneva seemed to arrive at a detector 730 kilometers away in Italy 60 nanoseconds faster than a beam of light sent at the same time. Of course, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity says that nothing can go faster than light, so this was potentially momentous news.

Fast forward to this week (but not faster than light!) and the scientists involved have announced that the results of the experiment are in doubt. They may have been caused by a data transmission problem. A fiber-optic cable that fed data from a GPS used in the timing procedure wasn’t as tight as it should have been, and that bad connection could potentially have produced a time discrepancy that suspiciously matches the 60 nanoseconds at the heart of the furor.

Now, this isn’t a clear-cut conclusion that the experiment was a bust, just an admission that an equipment problem could have accounted for the controversial results. The smell test says it probably did, and Einstein is still on his throne.

Which also means warp speed is still fiction. For now!


There was an earthquake this week. Not a real one, but a piece of news that shook the world of physics. A team of scientists claimed to have measured some particles moving faster than the speed of light.

The experiment involved a beam of neutrinos sent from a giant particle accelerator, the Super Proton Synchotron, at the facilities of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland to a special neutrino detector under Gran Sasso mountain in Italy, 730 kilometers away. What shocked the researchers was that the neutrinos appeared to arrive at the detector 60 nanoseconds sooner than they would have if they’d been travelling at the speed of light. Now, 60 billionths of a second may not seem like much, but Einstein’s theories of relativity say that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. So, if true, this experiment might not only prove the great Einstein wrong, but even force a significant shift in thinking about the laws of the universe.

Maybe that’s why so many reputable scientists don’t believe it.

There’s been endless speculation since the result was announced, including a lot of criticism that the findings should not have been announced until they’d been properly verified and duplicated. Even though the experiments took place over three years and the experimental data is rated as having a very high degree of reliability, most don’t believe it. They think there’s been an error somewhere. The results contradict earlier measurements involving neutrinos, including neutrinos from supernovae which were not found to have outraced the photons from the star explosions. And, after all, neutrinos are notoriously hard to measure. Besides, most scientists would rather bet on Einstein than some upstarts, even if they do have a particle accelerator.

But most importantly, there’s a lot at stake here. Relativity would have to be scrapped or seriously rejigged, and even causality—the law of cause and effect—would be on the trash heap. Then where will we be?

If my computer starts submitting posts before I even hit the ENTER key, who knows how much trouble I could get myself into?