by Jonathan Leake
October 18, 2009
Explosions, scientists arrested for
alleged terrorism, mysterious breakdowns - recently Cern’s Large
Hadron Collider (LHC) has begun to look like the world’s most
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
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
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
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
Nielsen’s idea has been likened to that of a man traveling 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
His warnings come at a sensitive time
for Cern, which is about to make its second attempt to fire up the
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
James Gillies, a trained physicist who heads Cern’s
communications department, said Nielsen’s idea was an interesting
“but we know it doesn’t happen in
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
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
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
“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
time travelers 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.”