Thursday, January 03, 2008

History Channel cosmology, and CERN: here, the strangelets and mega-disasters are the stuff of sci-fi movies

The History Channel seems to be going into repeats on its Mega-Disasters, and it may be stretching things to make too much out of the cosmology in its Universe series, but there may be something here.

January 1, the Universe series discussed three kinds of “cosmic holes” – worm, white and black. That’s not the same idea as the 2001 Disney adventure movie with Shia LaBeouf. No, here we’re talking about basic notions in physics. The white variety are fountains that spew matter into the universe (we’ve never found them). The wormholes would presumably take us to parallel universes in multi-dimensional space (by connecting branes), like a shortcut eaten through an apple. Black holes are, of course, well known: there are millions of the stellar kind in each galaxy, formed by supernovae, and there are the supermassive ones at the centers of galaxies. In rare cases, they merged. Previous History channel programs had dealt with the very remote possibility of a gamma ray burst from one of these hitting the earth every few billion years or so.

The end of the New Years Night Universe presentation discussed some large accelerators around the world, such as one in Switzerland, near Geneva and the border with France. This one belongs to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. CERN has a web entry that claims that the World Wide Web was invented by one of its scientists, Tim Bernes-Lee, in 1990, at this link. (The root website appears to be the School:). Now that is quite a claim (not quite like Al Gore ‘s), because the elements of the Internet were invented in various defense-oriented entities and universities starting back in the 1960s, and the public did not gain the right to use it until 1992. CERN (and other similar accelerators around the world, as in Texas and Illinois) are concerned with basic particle physics research, and not speculations of science fiction.

Various Internet personalities have speculated whether CERN or similar activities could conceivably lead to the production of black holes that swallow the earth, or to strangelets that produce runaway deterioration of space-time. That speculation occurs in a book by Sir Martin Rees “Our Final Hour” (Basic, 2004). It also appears on sites like “Risk Evaluation Forum” But the History Channel Universe program, contrary to the sensationalism of many of its other films, toned down this speculation to be essentially impossible.

Mini-black holes would present a confluence of general relativity and quantum mechanics, and challenge questions as to whether information in an object that sunk beyond the Schwarzschild Radius (event horizon) of a black hole could ever be recovered. The idea that information could be preserved in black holes and transported (faster than the speed of light) to other points in this or other universes was popular and circulated in some papers in the 1970s (such as Jeffrey Mishlov’es) and picked up by the “New Age” movement of the time. There are many articles about these matters on Wikipedia, which is trying to get some professional physicists to fill in the details and sources for the claims made.

The "Universe" show did make the point that the deeper laws of physics -- the mathematical constants, and the apparent impossibility of transcending the speed of light, the operations of relativity, and the avoidance of time travel paradoxes -- all seem to be nature's way of "protecting itself." One could extrapolate from this into religious notions of personal morality.

Along these lines, it’s interesting how science builds up in blocks. The basics of physics (or physical science) lead to chemistry; the descriptive facts on the Periodic Table, leading to all the possible valences, orbitals and electronegativities (so much the subject matter of AP chemistry courses) all follow from the physics of elementary particles. From this, at the next level, are inorganic compounds and then the whole world of organic chemistry, the bane of pre-med students in college. Then, of course, biology builds on chemistry, from ATP to amino acids to RNA and DNA, to cells, with its life cycles, forming patterns that have “moral” or religious significance to people and that seem beyond explanation without some sort of intelligent design, in the minds of some people.

Nevertheless, the idea of a mini black hole does give rise to some loglines for sci-fi movies or novels. I am working on a novel manuscript, which I may title “Brothers Simple” and I won’t give the plot (“beginning, middle, end” etc.) here (I have three different formulations from the viewpoints of several different characters) but I’ll hint at the sci-fi scenario, as another possible “mega-disaster.” A certain infection appears in some older people with unknown transmission and becomes recognized as a bizarre retroviral disease. The viral proteins can accommodate certain radioactive atoms (like a new allotrope of astatine) that produce micro black holes that allow the information imprints of other personalities to be imported. A few infected individuals take on the identities of selected from entities called the “144000”. People start disappearing, with their identities assimilated by others, as the world approaches an apocalypse. That’s the basic idea. It’s got a ways to go before winding up on imdb.

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