Are We Alone: LHC doomed from the future?

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2009 12:13 pm

The SETI Institute’s latest episode of the podcast Are We Alone is now up, and I talk with Seth Shostak about the idea that somehow, forces unknown (God? The Universe Itself? The Doctor? Tony Newman and Doug Phillips?) have tried to sabotage the Large Hadron Collider… from the future!


Personally, I’m not buying it, but it’s an interesting idea. The authors of a published study say that we should perform some sort of experiment before turning the LHC on to see if someone from the future is trying to contact us. But I have a better idea: let’s turn the LHC on and see if it works. If it does, then we’re done with this idea. And if it doesn’t, hand me my sonic screwdriver. There’s work to do!

[Edited to add: Well, the folks at CERN have been injecting particles into the LHC stream since Friday. They’ll be ramping it up to full speed in the coming weeks, so we’ll know soon enough about all this!]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science, Skepticism

Comments (60)

  1. I’m still trying to figure out the temporal twists of this. If starting up the LHC were as dangerous as the frightened ones think (“universe — go boom!”), there’d be no future after it got up to speed. So there wouldn’t be any people in the future, much less ones that could come back through time to stop us.

    Or am I missing something?

  2. JT

    But how can the LHC be sabotaged from the future after it blows up the universe?

    Edit: Darn it, beat by seconds!

    Edit 2: Clearly Sam Wise inserted his post before mine from the future.

  3. Your Mom

    Have they proposed how this experiment would work? I’m trying to imagine a way you could test that and be certain about a negative result. Is it negative because no one from the future is contacting us? Or is it negative because the whole experiment is absurd to begin with?

    Edit: I don’t think they think it will blow up the universe, just the planet and maybe the solar system. Or maybe it will just cause some kind of local problem, a small black hole that swallows up all of Europe and then collapses in on itself, explodes and sends the world into another ice age.

    Edit 2: That would be cool… :)

  4. Sounds like some scientists are being influenced by the nuttiness in the right-wing-o-sphere. Death panels, invasions from the future, it’s all the same crazy!

  5. @JT: Sam actually posted hours after you did, but he posted retrotemporally, stealing both your joke and your status as first. That’s just science.

  6. And now you stole my joke the same way! Cursed temporal meddlers!

  7. Ray

    Where did the authors of the study get their degrees? And can universities take them back after they’ve been awarded?

  8. Sarcastro

    Guys, guys. Infinite universes. Not someone from THE future, someone from A future where Stimpy we didn’t push the history eraser button engage the LHC.

  9. Grizzly

    Where’s my earth-shattering ka-boom?

  10. et

    Clearly the temporal prime directive hasn’t been established.

  11. Anti-Dentite

    I’m surprised you didn’t link to your fellow member of the Hive Overmind at Cosmic Variance.
    It’s a pretty good rundown of the papers in question. Yes, they’re silly, but they’re pretty open about it. No conspiracy theories or DeLoreans required.

  12. Charles Boyer

    Wouldn’t the people from the future eradicate any mention of the possibility as well, just to cover their tracks?

    The mind boggles.

  13. Adrian Lopez

    I think the underlying idea is that only in an universe where the LHC does not destroy the universe would we still be here to talk about it. Thus, the argument follows, if the LHC does have the ability to destroy the universe then we’ll only still be here to talk about it in a universe where the LHC doesn’t work.

    The problem I have with that line of thinking is that a lack of witnesses after the fact does not necessarily preclude the possibility of witnesses before and during the destruction process. The universe wasn’t destroyed today, but it could be destroyed tomorrow.

    The idea that the universe can’t “afford” a universe-destroying LHC might make sense if we assume that the universe’s destruction in the future also destroys it in the past, but that would introduce a significant paradox: how could the LHC destroy the universe if the universe never existed in the first place?

    I think the easiest way out of the dilemma is to realize the LHC isn’t likely to destroy the universe in any way.

  14. AliCali

    So the world was supposed to end in AD 1000 with Christ, 2000 with Christ or Y2k, 2001 with Terrorism, 2003 with Planet X, and 2008 with CERN’s LHC, right? And now it’s 2009 or 2010 with the LHC or 2012 with a dead tribe’s calendar, right?

    I can’t keep track of all the ways the world is supposed to end. If only someone wrote a book about this topic.

  15. MJBUtah

    @ 13 you forgot to end all those theories with “oh dear, I’ve gone cross-eyed.” a la Austin Powers. Which is sort of what this whole discussion reminds me of.

    To the time traveling VW Bug!

  16. Shoeshine Boy

    This sabotage from the future idea is baloney. My personal hypothesis involves a parallel universe theory.

    First, assume that the LHC will destroy the universe if it starts. If that is the case, only universes where it fails to start will be around for us to discuss the topic after an attempt.

    To test my hypothesis, keep trying to run the thing. If we can never get it to work, I’m right. If it works, I’m wrong.

    Of course, we may have to destroy a whole lot of universes before we can be completely sure :)

  17. Sam

    If we do get the LHC up and running, we’ll need a better plan for contacting ourselves in the past. This one, to be honest, kinda sucks.

  18. Phillip M

    Just a question, how many times has the LHC shut down from malfunction?

  19. Philippe MacKay

    The author of the study (or should I say studies) are both working at CERN. It has nothing to do with “peoples” from the future! Here’s the main article:
    It all has to do with particle physics. The theory is this: why should we only take into account the space dimentions when computing the initial condition of particles reactions since GR tells us that space and time are similar? Then they say that, maybe, the existance of a free Higgs boson creates an initial condition in which no free Higgs boson can be created. Therefore, if the LHC is powerfull enough to create a free Higgs boson, it would make such that no Higgs boson could be created. It would imply quantum mechanics in such a way that random events would render the LHC incapable of producing Higgs bosons…
    The experiment they proposed has to do with shuffling a deck of cards and making decisions based on a random picking. They explain in details what we could learn about the mass and the energy of the Higgs boson with such an experiment…
    If you can, read the article, it explains things much beter than I just did.

    Again, it has nothing to do with crazy paranoids and the destruction of the universe. It’s just quantum mechanics and general relativity!

  20. Tim

    Yup, no doubt about it. You nailed it. It’s the Doctor. Couldn’t be anyone else.

  21. Anyone ever read “Einstein’s Bridge” by John Cramer? The plot is eerily similar to “the idea that somehow, forces unknown have tried to sabotage the Large Hadron Collider … from the future!”

  22. Can the cern scientists please just say that they won’t start the machine until dec. 21 2012. it really would be hilarious

  23. Christine P.

    Hey, a Time Tunnel reference – awesome!! I loved that show when I was a kid. Then I rented the DVD last year to revisit it. After they traveled to ancient Greece, where everyone conveniently spoke perfect modern English, I got too disillusioned to watch it any more. I guess that’s a good lesson in not revisiting one’s childhood.

    I sure am glad modern entertainment does better with the science. Just look at Armageddon. 😉

  24. Brian Schlosser

    Here’s an idea: The LHC DOES destroy the world… but not instantly. Instead, it’s a long, drawn out process. Studying this delayed catastrophe leads to the discovery of time travel, which the future scientists use to attempt to stop the LHC from being turned on in the first place, which we interpret as various “malfunctions”. But, of course, their attempts fail, and the world is DOOMED, but at least there’s no annoying paradox…

  25. Ray

    Here’s an idea: the people in the future shouldn’t be trying to cause “malfunctions”. They should be sending back a big STOP sign with an explanation on it. The fact that they don’t send back something better than ambiguous “malfunctions” tells me its all hooey.

  26. Zehra Nasif

    Just to entertain the idea; forces unknown (Other Gods? The Other Universes Themselves? The Doctors? Tony Newmanian and Doug Phillipios?) from a parallel universe sabotaged the Large Hadron Collider. They don’t want to collide with our corrupt existence by an accident.

  27. Peter

    That’s how the SSC was shut down about 20 years ago. (Yes, I’ve read Einstein’s Bridge, too.)

  28. Some people forgot that time is a sorty wibbly wobbly kind of thing.

  29. Aerimus

    Actually, Ray, it was “malfunctions” from the “yet farther into the future scientists” that caused the problem that the “not quite as far in the future scientists” are having today…er…tomorrow…whatever. The current malfunctions will inevitably lead to the destruction of our own LHC, and our similarly inevitable attempts to thwart the past us with malfunctions, thus dooming them as well…

  30. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips?

    Wondered how long before someone mentioned this. But, how about Sam Beckett?

    Also, watching Flashforward on ABC, I wonder what they will have as the ’cause’ of the blackout, since the novel had the LHC as the trigger for their twenty year ‘jump’.


  31. Brian Hart

    Tony Newman and Doug Phillips? Better speak to General Kirk or Dr. Ann MacGregor before you start to do a transfer.

  32. Mike

    Is this perhaps evidence of how far off the path of reality theoretical physics has wandered?

  33. Zarnog

    Have you considered that it may be aliens from the future trying to protect the earth from anihilating itself?

  34. Scott

    This is incredibly stupid.

  35. ND

    The section on placebo I thought was very very interesting.

  36. You know, since you folks (Sarcastro, Shoeshine Boys, et al.) brought multiverse theory into this, maybe that’s what’s going on — another ‘verse is feeling competitive, so since their LHC is smaller / less powerful / behind schedule, they’re sabotaging ours in order to salve their own wounded egos.

    It’s the start of a inter-‘verse particle physics race. Or not.

  37. No, it was Phineas Bogg! The Omni doesn’t turn green unless he disables the LHC.

  38. I propose that this is some sort of alien signal searching for humpback whales. Prove me wrong

  39. Chip

    Following up on what Sam White wrote, somehow I’m reminded of the speculation concerning the strange behavior of a single photon in the double slit experiment, wherein the one photon manages to go though both slits simultaneously. The far-flung speculation is that there is another you in a parallel Universe joined only on the quantum level, doing the exact same experiment and that’s why you get the wave pattern and simultaneity.

    So maybe there’s this parallel LHC working backwards. Simultaneously coming online with ours. Maybe there’s another physicist over there shouting “Mr. Scott, that’s not working. Let’s reverse polarity.” 😉

  40. OK, this may be a bit extreme … but I’d much rather have the planet destroyed in a search for deeper understanding of how the cosmos works, rather than by some religious nut-jobs playing around with the wrong kind of buttons…

  41. Alareth

    Guys, calm down. I’ve seen nothing about the end of the world in the headlines when I get tomorrows newspaper every morning.

  42. #36, Sam Wise:
    So, what you’re saying is another Universe has Hadron Envy?

    I remember listening to C2C some years ago, and they were all aflutter about someone named John Titor, coming back from 2036 to pick up an obsolete IBM computer to prevent some type of computer related catastrophe in 2036. Maybe it’s him! LOL

  43. Arlo


    When’s the book coming out and what’s the title? Sounds good. 😉

  44. StevoR

    Hey, if the Doctors trying to tell us something I think we’d better listen! 😉

    *Which* incarnation I wonder? And which companions are wih him? I hope its Tom Baker & Leela or maybe Colin Baker or Peter Davidson and … mmm … Peri! Or perhaps Nyssa.. 😉

    Future interference? Well it would be pretty awesome if true! Any real signs that it might be?

  45. Beelzebud

    This is the type of “science” that gives real science a bad name. I honestly wonder how anyone could take something like this seriously. I know I’m just a layman, but this idea (I won’t dignify it by calling it a theory), just seems totally unscientific.

    You want to convince the public that their money is being spent wisely? This isn’t the way to do it.

  46. Quiet Desperation

    “Thrice Upon A Time” by James P. Hogan

    Part of the book is about inventors of a device to send messages back in time using it to warn about a supercollider creating black holes and dooming the Earth.

  47. Quiet Desperation

    This is the type of “science” that gives real science a bad name.

    The results of an experiment may exist in a hazy, undetermined state until someone actually observes the result.

    Sir, the *universe* sometimes seems determined to give science a bad name. 😉

  48. fred edison

    Everyone knows you can’t go back in time past the point the time machine was constructed. Hmmmm. Okay, who’s holding out on us and keeping this fancy gadget under wraps? 😉

  49. mike burkhart

    Frist I don’tblame God for every bad thing that happens . I don’t think we will develop time machines in the future . If we did then how come we have not had a lot of people from the future droping in on us ? Has Phill had a person show up on his doorstep saying there from the year 2598 and came back in time to meet the famious Dr Platt whose book Bad astronomy is required reading in school ? (it shoud be) Or how come some one from the future has not tried to change history like show up and konck Lee Harvey Oswald out before he shoots JFKunder the assumpon that the future would be perfect if this event was changed?(I say there is no prof that changeing a bad event will make future better it could make it worse)

  50. Adam

    If the LHC is going to be a problem to the Earth’s future, the mice would stop it… maybe they’re causing the malfunctions? After all, if we destroy the planet, they’ll be furious.

  51. ND

    Well, there was that guy a few years ago that made a ton of money and when arrested for insider trading he claimed to have been from the future. Seriously. This was reported somewhere but I can’t find it now. Note: I’m not claiming the time-travel aspect is real. Just a fun note.

  52. Gary Ansorge

    Let’s see, we have about 200 billion stars in the Milky Way and about 200 billion or so galaxies in the observable universe and in all that space/time, we’re the FIRST species to build a universe destroying LHC???

    Does the word hubris ring a bell?

    There is only one version of time travel I know of that can actually work: a great big telescope. Unfortunately, we can’t get ahead of the wave front from our earth to see where we’ve come from, so we really need to make contact with another civilization 100,000 lights years away who can tell us what we were doing,,,100,000 years ago. Of course, that communication would take 200,000 years.

    Oh well. Never mind.

    Gary 7

  53. Mike

    Hearing this talk in the latest Are We Alone? was a nice surprise. =)

  54. Ken

    Just how do the energy densities of the LHC compare to, oh, a supernova? Or the coalescence of a couple of neutron stars, or of galaxy-center black holes? Unless the LHC is somehow hitting the universe harder than those sorts of events, I don’t really think it will break the cosmos.

  55. Gary Ansorge

    54. Ken

    I don’t know about those critters but as has been pointed out several times before in these LHC discussions, we get hit at least once a year by high energy cosmic rays with 10^21 electron volt energies,or, in other words a BILLION times more energy than the LHC could generate and cosmic rays of the energy of the LHC probably every second. So far, we’re still here,,,

    GAry 7

  56. Owen

    This is scary. Not because of the threat of impending doom, but because of the threat of impending Hollywood. I can practically see the script being written now… and the crappy-movie fan in me loves it.

  57. M31

    I’m pretty sure that the LHC will make the sun swell up into a huge red giant star which will swallow the Earth. I’m also pretty sure that it will only take about 5 billion years to happen.

  58. M31

    You know, I’m also pretty sure that the invaders from the future have this kind of Cassandra-craziness ray-emitting thingy, so that anyone who knows about them is thought of as a crackpot and never taken seriously.

    What a great way to cover your time-traveling tracks.

    Nah, that’s crazy. Never mind.

  59. PeteC

    As Gary (54) says, collisions of this magnitude happen all the time, including in our upper atmosphere.

    So the universe/future people/ The Doctor/ Pixies will have to be doing something about all of those. That should be noticeable, shouldn’t it? Uncounted millions of odd events all conspiring to stop these collisions happening? What would the universe do? How does it stop a high-powered particle impacting on a nickel-iron asteroid somewhere out in space?

    Plus, and I know this is woo-woo as hell, it just feels… “wrong”. When we say things like “nature abhors a vacuum” we don’t actually mean that it hates it and actively intervenes in some fashion to get rid of it. We just mean that the nature of particle movements in gasses by natural processes expands that gas to fill the available space. Nothing in any of our experience has been “hated” by the universe. The most unstable trans-uranic elements decay immediately using perfectly normal radioactive processes – the machinery to create them doesn’t mysteriously break.

    In this way, I think that if nature “hated” the Higgs Boson, then it simply won’t be possible to create it. Nature “hates” me flapping my arms, flying up to the top of the atmosphere, then pushing really hard so I fly FTL to Arcturus. Natural laws thus just don’t allow me to do it. If the Higgs Boson is contrary to natural law, then there is no Higgs Boson.

    Finally, a bit of common sense here. The F-22 program, the Nimrod program, the computerisation of UK medical records and the Space Shuttle program all came in way, way after their original deadlines and way, way over their original budgets. Does this mean that some mysterious force from the future was interfering with these too? No, of course not. It simply means that huge projects – especially those on the edge of technological ability and scientific knowledge – are *hard* and often run into problems that optimistic planners didn’t envisage. Really, if it hadn’t been the LHC but a magnet in a new monorail train that had failed pushing the project back a year, would anyone be talking about a mysterious mechanism from the future intervening due to its fear or hatred of light public transport?

  60. Alex Vorobiev

    The idea of the universe’s attempting to prevent any scientific advances potentially leading to the universe’s destruction is not new. There is a brilliant old Russian/Soviet science fiction novel which was called (in its English translation) Definitely Maybe ( by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky on precisely this subject.


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