Big Bombs and Big Collisions


The Hadron Collider is the most ambitious project in science since the nuclear bomb, but are they comparable?, asks Farouq Manji.

In the midst of WWII as concerns were growing that the Germans were building a super-bomb, Robert Oppenheimer convened a study at the University of California Berkeley to review the general theory of fissions reactions.

He was then the recently appointed head of the Manhattan Project, a secret international organisation with the mandate of creating the first feasible nuclear bomb. Among the physicists present were Edward Teller and Felix Bloch.

At the 1942 Berkeley conferences it was determined that a nuclear fission bomb was theoretically possible.
Using a fission explosion to ignite a fusion bomb were, at the time, deemed unfeasible, but Teller’s subsequent theoretical designs about this later became the modern day hydrogen bomb.

Members of the scientific community have expressed their belief that the high-energy collisions in the Hadron tube could create mini-black holes which would grow and consume the Earth

However Teller had concerns that the power generated by such a bomb would initiate a fusion reaction of nitrogen in the air – and roast the surface of the planet.

He and two other scientists later refuted the idea, however concerns still existed until the first successful test in July of 1945.

It seems appropriate that one of the founders of the nuclear bomb, Felix Bloch, was also the first director of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). Located under the Franco-Swiss border, it’s the largest laboratory in the world, employing tens of thousands of scientists from over 50 countries.

Most recently, CERN completed their remarkable Large Hadron Collider, the most expensive and ambitious civilian science experiment in history. CERN’s almost €7 billion Large Hadron Collider is a 27 km tunnel built underground, surrounded by 1,600 superconducting magnets, cooled by liquid helium, creating a colder vacuum than outer space.

The aim of the tunnel is to accelerate particles nearly to the speed of light – then smash them together and study the result. The smaller particles liberated from their collisions should provide clues about the origin of the universe, the nature of mater and the interactions of subatomic particles.

The first tests were successfully performed on September 10th, albeit at very low speeds. Some scientists are concerned however, that once these experiments are run at full throttle, they may pose some danger in and of themselves.

On the surface the Large Hadron Collider and the Manhattan Project appear to be very different, but striking similarities exist. Both were expensive – in current terms, the Manhattan Project is estimated to have cost €16 billion.

The concerns raised over both projects are also comparable. Members of the scientific community have expressed their belief that the high-energy collisions in the Hadron tube could create mini-black holes which would grow and consume the Earth.

Independent, expert scientists have refuted these theories just as in the Manhattan project. Déjà vu indeed.
The socio-political climate today is very different than that which drove the Manhattan Project. CERN is driven by scientists with a common hunger for knowledge; the former was motivated by the desire towin WWII by bombing Japan.

Even Albert Einstein regretted his role in the development of the bomb, though he played a very small active part. But no such debate exists for the Large Hadron Collider.

Its activities seemingly are not secretive, nor are they motivated by war. Therefore as similar as these two historic events might be, they are books written in a completely different style toward a very different ending.