Explosions, scientists arrested for alleged terrorism, mysterious breakdowns " recently Cern’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has begun to look like the world’s most ill-fated experiment.
Is it really nothing more than bad luck or is there something weirder at work? Such speculation generally belongs to the lunatic fringe, but serious scientists have begun to suggest that the frequency of Cern’s accidents and problems is far more than a coincidence.
The LHC, they suggest, may be sabotaging itself from the future " twisting time to generate a series of scientific setbacks that will prevent the machine fulfilling its destiny.
At first sight, this theory fits comfortably into the crackpot tradition linking the start-up of the LHC with terrible disasters. The best known is that the £3 billion particle accelerator might trigger a black hole capable of swallowing the Earth when it gets going. Scientists enjoy laughing at this one.
This time, however, their ridicule has been rather muted " because the time travel idea has come from two distinguished physicists who have backed it with rigorous mathematics.
What Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, are suggesting is that the Higgs boson, the particle that physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be “abhorrent to nature”.
What does that mean? According to Nielsen, it means that the creation of the boson at some point in the future would then ripple backwards through time to put a stop to whatever it was that had created it in the first place.
This, says Nielsen, could explain why the LHC has been hit by mishaps ranging from an explosion during construction to a second big bang that followed its start-up. Whether the recent arrest of a leading physicist for alleged links with Al-Qaeda also counts is uncertain.
Nielsen’s idea has been likened to that of a man travelling back through time and killing his own grandfather. “Our theory suggests that any machine trying to make the Higgs shall have bad luck,” he said.
“It is based on mathematics, but you could explain it by saying that God rather hates Higgs particles and attempts to avoid them.”
His warnings come at a sensitive time for Cern, which is about to make its second attempt to fire up the LHC. The idea is to accelerate protons to almost the speed of light around the machine’s 17-mile underground circular racetrack and then smash them together.
In theory the machine will create tiny replicas of the primordial “big bang” fireball thought to have marked the creation of the universe. But if Nielsen and Ninomiya are right, this latest build-up will inevitably get nowhere, as will those that come after " until eventually Cern abandons the idea altogether.
This is, of course, far from being the first science scare linked to the LHC. Over the years it has been the target of protests, wild speculation and court injunctions.