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Totally fictional doomsdays

Scott Eklund / Seattle Post-Intelligencer file
University of Washington physicist John Cramer has designed an experiment
in reverse-time causality - and has written a novel about time travel as well.

Have you heard the one about the physics experiment that created globe-gobbling black holes? Or killer neutrino beams? Or the voice of God? How about antimatter explosives and the boson bomb? There's even a supercollider that set off a crisis so huge that scientists had to be sent back in time to make sure the supercollider was never built in the first place.

All these subatomic nightmares, and more besides, are pure science fiction ... with a bit of science woven in.

The black-hole nightmare in particular has touched off a wave of worry about the Large Hadron Collider, complete with lawsuits, tearful protests and death threats.

Several rounds of scientific studies, considering increasingly outlandish scenarios, have ruled out the black-hole threat. The evidence shows that the collider is absolutely safe, and poses no chance of cosmic catastrophe. Nevertheless, the hysteria continues: Part of the reason for that is that scientists say it's conceivable that a less threatening breed of subatomic black holes could be created. But another factor is that there's so much science-fiction appeal to the tale of the black hole that ate the earth.

In fact, the idea goes back at least several years before Europe's CERN particle-physics lab even gave the go-ahead for building the LHC. Physicist/author David Brin used the black-hole scenario as a plot device in his eco-disaster novel "Earth," published in 1990 (and Brin has said the idea didn't originate with him).

Campaigners worked the cosmic-catastrophe theme into their opposition to Fermilab's Tevatron in Illinois (starting in the mid-1990s), the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in New York (starting in the late '90s) and the LHC (starting a couple of years ago).

Those real-life atom-smashers, in addition to the never-built Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, figure in a bevy of subatomic scare stories. Perhaps the eeriest one is "Einstein's Bridge," by University of Washington physicist John Cramer.

It's eerie on at least two counts:

  • Cramer worked on the novel in the early to mid-1990s, before and after Congress' 1993 cancellation of funding for the Superconducting Super Collider. The Texas facility as well as the LHC (which was approved for construction around the same time) figure in the plot, along with some real-life and quasi-real-life characters from politics and particle physics. I won't spoil the plot, other than to say it involves aliens from two different metaverses and a desperate effort to go back in time and make sure the supercollider never got built. (The effort apparently worked.)
  • Speaking of time travel, Cramer has been in the midst of a real-life experiment in retrocausality - a kind of backward flow of information from the future to the past. I first wrote about this experiment almost two years ago, and Cramer recently told me that he's still trying to get the apparatus to work. Perhaps what Stephen Hawking said is true: Nature abhors a time machine.

Cramer, who's also on one of the research teams using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, has often said that he'll write either a scientific paper or a novel about backward causality.

"If the experiment works, then I will be on to some very interesting roads to success," Cramer said, "but I'll probably end up writing the novel rather than making the discovery. In a sense, doing the experiment is background for the novel."

The Large Hadron Collider just might provide Cramer and other science-savvy novelists with new material for their stories. Probably not about world-threatening black holes, though. That plot has been around for years.

Like most scientists, Cramer says the same theory that suggests black holes might be created at the LHC also says they would fizzle out instantly - which he explained in his "Alternate View" column for Analog magazine, more than five years ago.

In fact, Cramer doubts that the LHC will ever find black holes. He's more hopeful that physicists will detect their main target, a fundamental particle called the Higgs boson.

"It's fairly likely that they will see the Higgs at some point, but it will be a while before they can make a case for it," he told me. "It's fairly unlikely that they'll find black holes. And it's also fairly likely they'll see something they didn't expect at all." 

Are you looking for more thrills and chills? Here are 10 other novels that explore the fictional frontiers of particle physics. Some of them have already been featured as selections for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club.

  • "Angels and Demons": Dan Brown's thriller is set mostly in Rome, but the opening chapters - including the theft of an antimatter bomb - bring the sleuthing symbolologist from "The Da Vinci Code" to the Large Hadron Collider. The movie adaptation, starring Tom Hanks, is due out next year. Check out this reality check from CERN, and this update on how filmmakers came to the real LHC to prepare for the big-screen version.
  • "Blasphemy": Here's another fast-moving thriller about a fictional supercollider named Isabella (a reference to the never-completed ISABELLE collider in New York). The physicists think they're hearing the voice of God, while militant Christians think Armageddon is nigh. What on earth inspired Douglas Preston to write this one? Click here for the spoiler
  • "Cat's Cradle": Kurt Vonnegut's classic is a 20th-century tale of the Midas touch. In this version, the catastrophe is brought on by ice-nine, a fictional form of water that freezes over even at high temperatures. The ice-nine concept has been evoked in the discussions over whether exotic bits of matter known as strangelets could turn everything it touches into strangelets as well - a doomsday scenario that experts have judged to be all wet.
  • "Cosm": The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider is the setting for Gregory Benford's novel about subatomic smash-ups that create little big bangs and new universes.
  • "Final Theory": Mark Alpert's novel is one of the latest entrants in the subatomic-scare genre. It's based on the idea that Albert Einstein actually came up with a unified field theory - but saw that the applications were so deadly that it had to be kept secret. Some critics have seen parallels to "The Da Vinci Code," but the crucial scenes focus on the Tevatron rather than the Templars.
  • "Flashforward": In Robert J. Sawyer's novel, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider set out to find the Higgs boson, but when they turn on the atom-smasher, they find instead that everyone on Earth blacks out for two minutes and gets a sneak preview of life 21 years later. Was it all just a hallucination?
  • "The God Particle": Richard Cox's novel should not be confused with the nonfiction book of the same name that was written by Nobel-winning physicist Leon Lederman. In this tale, the quest for the Higgs boson at the Superconducting Super Collider sparks strange new powers in a regular guy who doesn't understand what's going on. Kind of like a "Heroes" episode.
  • "A Hole in Texas": Herman Wouk ("War and Remembrance") blends politics, particle physics and a little hanky-panky in his novel about a veteran of the Superconducting Super Collider project who's called back into service when Washington fears that the Chinese might be working on a boson bomb.
  • "Manifold: Time": The first book in Stephen Baxter's science-fiction trilogy suggests that faint messages can be sent back in time from the end of the universe, using coded neutrinos. And that's not all: If you read only one novel about spacefaring squids, this is the one. 
  • "Timescape": This Gregory Benford novel is also about time-traveling messages - in this case, faster-than-light tachyons sent back from an environmentally wrecked world in 1998 to a nuclear magnetic resonance experiment in 1963. How can you reconcile quantum mechanics with information flowing backward in time? Sounds like it's John Cramer's retrocausality experiment all over again.

Do you have further suggestions for subatomic stories? Feel free to leave them as comments below, and they just might turn into future recommendations for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club.

Update for 11:50 a.m. ET May 21, 2009: I traveled back in time to let you know about the status of Cramer's retrocausality experiment. He's gearing up for "phase 3," but there are still no results to report.