by Alan Boyle
October 16, 2009
A worker is dwarfed
by components of the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS detector
during construction in an underground chamber beneath the
Is the future trying to save us from
A series of scientific papers that have
been kicking around for a couple of years suggest that if the Large
Hadron Collider ever were to find something that shattered the
cosmos, the future universe might protect itself by sending a
backward-causality wave to break the LHC, or at least warn us.
Sure enough, the LHC is broken - leading The New York Times'
Dennis Overbye to wonder half-jokingly whether there was
something to the claim after all.
Does that sound spooky?
What if I told you that the idea
of going back in time to derail out a world-ending particle
collider goes back even farther, to a novel written about
the fate of the long-canceled Superconducting Super Collider?
And that the author of that book
is a physicist who has been conducting research into...
To quote the actor Keanu Reeves, who has
appeared in a couple of time-travel sagas himself: "Whooooa!" And
just in time for Halloween!
Each piece of the puzzle is relatively mundane by itself, but when
you put them all together, it could serve as the makings for a
science-fiction story as way-out as anything you'd see in "Bill and
Ted's Excellent Adventure," "FlashForward" or University of
Washington physicist John Cramer's book, "Einstein's
The papers on the LHC's
potential effects were written by Holger Nielsen of
Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute and Masao Ninomiya
of Japan's Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics.
They suggest that the LHC could
produce exotic particles (such as the long-sought Higgs
boson), and that producing those particles would somehow be
so catastrophic that the event would send back a
timeline-altering signal to avoid producing them in the
first place. They even suggest that physicists create a card
game that would determine whether the LHC is allowed to
operate at the highest levels.
The game would be designed with
a minuscule chance of "losing," but if the physicists
actually lose the game, the LHC would be limited to
Nielsen and Ninomiya's papers
were published on the
Web site, which is a clearinghouse for all sorts of
papers (including suggestions that the LHC
could create a time machine or lead to
a relativistic hyperdrive).
Just because a paper shows up on
arXiv doesn't mean it's so. The big reason why the papers
are getting a second look is because a helium leak and
electrical breakdown forced the LHC to go dark just days
after it started up.
That's an example of
old-fashioned forward causality. Nevertheless, the shutdown,
plus the fact that the LHC won't reach full power for more
than a year, has led some folks to grumble that the project
This isn't the first time a big
particle-smasher has seemed jinxed. Back in 1990, the
Superconducting Super Collider looked like the next big
thing in physics - in fact, it would have been more powerful
than the LHC. But Congress moved to cancel the project in
1993, due to cost concerns.
Or was that the real reason?
In Cramer's book, "Einstein's
Bridge," the Superconducting Super Collider ends
up getting built - but it opens the door to problems coming
in from a metaverse in a bad cosmic neighborhood. That
sparks a desperate effort to hold those problems at bay, and
change the collider's timeline if possible.
Without going into the details,
I'll just note that a similar plot twist finds its way into
another novel about the Superconducting Super Collider
Cramer is a particle physicist
as well as a novelist and columnist, and one of his latest
projects is to determine whether backward causality on a
small scale is actually possible under the rules of quantum
At last report, he was still
having trouble setting up the correct apparatus. But even if
the experiment is a failure, he can still make use of the
As he told me a couple of years
So what's the bottom line here?
Almost nobody thinks the LHC poses a
threat worth changing the past over. A lawsuit to stop the collider
is still being considered on appeal, however, and as we get closer
to the scheduled restart in mid-November, there may be a fresh surge
of particle-physics paranoia.
If that's the case, don't be surprised -
and for heaven's sake, don't panic.