After Hours

Geek Trivia: Data with destiny

What is the projected rate of data production for the Large Hadron Collider?

The Swiss are famously neutral on nearly every major public issue of the day, including—apparently—the construction of potential doomsday devices beneath their own soil. Still, don't look for the state of Hawaii to stand idly by and allow the world to collapse into an artificial black hole or convert into an uninhabitable mass of exotic matter. That's because a U.S. district court in Hawaii is hearing a lawsuit aimed at halting the operation of the largest, most complex scientific instrument ever built: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is paid for and housed in part by the Swiss.

In any case, let's hope the famous Swiss caution is well founded this time, because some vocal critics of the LHC claim there's a remote possibility it could, you know, destroy the world.

At its heart, the LHC is basically a 26 kilometer-long circuit of superconducting magnets designed to slam protons into one another at 99 percent the speed of light. The idea is to recreate conditions as they were near the moment of the Big Bang, when the laws of time and space didn't work quite the way they do now. Observing these collisions could answer some of the fundamental mysteries of the universe, like the origins of mass, the properties of dark matter, and the probability of extra dimensions — all for the low, low price of about $10 billion.

During those post Big Bang moments, all sorts of crazy phenomena are thought to have existed, including microscopic black holes, strangelets, and magnetic monopoles. The scary doomsday theories hold that, should the LHC generate them, the micro-black holes could swarm into a "normal" black hole that eats planet Earth; the strangelets — weird forms of "zombie" matter that convert everything they touch into other strangelets — could get out of hand and eat planet Earth; and the magnetic monopoles — charged particles that only have one magnetic pole — could scramble every atomic bond they touch, starting a chain reaction that eats planet Earth.

The vast majority of physicists dismiss these theories as ill-founded alarmist nonsense, mostly because the collisions the LHC will create occur in deep space all the time without these apocalyptic side effects. Potential death particles aside, something the LHC is certain to produce are extraordinary bursts of data — so much so that CERN, the LHC's host laboratory, has had to build the most powerful scientific data-processing network ever devised to handle the LHC's output. Simply named The Grid, this distributed computing platform will need to handle a staggering amount of data and transmit it globally at record speeds.


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About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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