An instantaneous eruption of absence

Conceptualizing sheer nothingness is quite befuddling. I think it might be the human equivalent of telling a computer to divide by zero. Perhaps now I understand why they exhibit such antipathy toward doing so. That and the whole mathematics thing, but I’m not a computer scientist, I’m a journalist with a degree in history.

Nonetheless, before my introductory digression we were discussing the potential of existencelessness. Why? Well, the most recent report on the impending activation of the Large Hadron Collider has burrowed under my skin.

A Los Angeles Times article yesterday lifted my eyebrows.

There’s something awe-inspiring about the simple statement:

“The most complex piece of scientific equipment ever built, the collider will send particles crashing into each other at just a wink shy of the speed of light, generating energies more powerful than the sun.”

Before delving deeper, has anyone mentioned the fact, at all, that using the modifier “large” to describe the Hadron Collider is a bit overly cautious? It’s like calling the ocean damp. There is no melo in this drama, and hyperbole just doesn’t apply. I think an $8 billion, 17-mile ring of man-made equipment capable of producing more energy than a star 870,000 miles across and 330,000 times more massive than the Earth is worthy of a scientifically applied title of Ginormous.

Delving into the thick of reporter John Johnson Jr.’s article (awesome name, by the way) only further solidifies why the collider merits such a title. Its main purpose is determine whether a theoretical particle responsible for giving other particles their mass, known the Higgs-boson, the so-called “God Particle,” actually exists. In doing so it will produce an extremely massive particle in an apparently tiny space:

“But how could a collision of tiny particles like protons produce a massive particle like the Higgs?

In our macro-world, crashing things together, like cars, makes big things into smaller things, like broken headlights and fenders. But it’s different in the subatomic world, where crashing two Priuses together can produce a 10-wheeler.”

This entire situation is unbelievably fascinating yet incredibly underreported.

The Internet is already awash with discussion and debate of the possible results from the collider’s activation, which could take place early this summer. Johnson explores both the science behind what researchers hope to observe with the collider, and the worries some people have about the possibility the collider could create a black hole — or worse — that might destroy the earth as well as much of the galaxy.

And you thought you’d live to see the end of the Bush presidency, or the very least, he’d be the one destroying the universe.

Perhaps it is Johnson’s compelling narrative stirring my imagination, but his description of the experiment itself is as ginormously fascinating as the doomsday scenarios described by the collider’s opponents.

“Scientists like Mangano believe that this instrument, when it begins operating as early as this summer, will peer into a looking-glass world that could contain entrances to extra dimensions and super-massive partners of the familiar particles that make up our world. One creature that must be hiding there, the scientists say, is the Higgs particle, one of the most exotic undiscovered objects since the yeti.”

Entrances to extra dimensions? Yeti?


Anyhow, I’ll leave you to peruse the article at your leisure (brew yourself a cup of coffee — it’s rather long, but extremely fascinating).

Still, I’ve yet to describe my lack of computational power for the possibility of oblivion. In reading this article I realize, even though legitimate scientists have expressed their concern about this project, the possibility of terrestrial annihilation are slim (I particularly appreciate the argument used by physicist Michelangelo L. Mangano involving the world-destructive possibility in the act of shaving). Nonetheless, I was left pondering what would happen if Mangano and other scientists involved in the Large Hadron Collider project were wrong and, indeed, a black hole forms this summer.

What would that be like? How can we conceptualize simply ceasing to exist. For some reason, I’m not particularly wrapped up in pondering my own, individual death. While I don’t want it to happen any time soon, having had enough death around me I don’t find it impossible to comprehend. Whatever happens to one’s own consciousness upon one’s death, one leaves some form of an impression on the consciousness of others. Moreover, each life — of whatever species — has a measurable physical impact on the earth, not just in our activities from a climate change or environmental standpoint, but also in our atomic makeup and the perpetual recirculation of this atomic structure with the rest of the world’s through birth and death, respiration, ingestion and excretion. There is a constant interchange of matter throughout the globe (and indeed throughout the universe) and a constant exchange of energy as a result of each process of life and geology.

Yet my first thought in my admittedly rudimentary understanding of black holes and the other Large Hadron Collider Doomsday scenarios is sheer nothingness. If those scenarios take place, all could be destroyed: not just human life or animal life or even, simply, life, but everything. There could be an instantaneous eruption of absence. Could we even describe our destruction as death if all that we may have otherwise impacted is not there to mark it? Can death exist if there are no memories left upon which to impress. How many infinitudes of existences have already been lost forever to other black holes, or scientific exploration? When does consciousness cease to exist? Does it simply switch off like a light? How would we know it’s off, anyway? Does that mean our final moments of existence will last forever, because there will be no way to truly mark the end of our time here?

Or are we too small-minded? Will it really be destruction simply because the earth ceases to exist? If a black hole does emerge from the experiment, doesn’t that just mean we will be integrated at a different scale with the universe than we are when we die, as our bodies decay and the molecules of our bones and skin and organs join with the rest of the world? Isn’t there always another layer, another fabric with which we are woven?

The questions persist, ringing around my skull and now echoing across Cyberspace. I cannot conceptualize an end to this, to any of these questions. I cannot conceptualize an end. I cannot conceptualize nothing. I cannot divide by zero.


2 responses to “An instantaneous eruption of absence

  1. I hate to be a nitpicking computer geek (but why fight ones true nature) but the analogy with “division by zero” is a just the exact opposite of what you want. Division by zero leads to infinites rather than nothingness!

  2. Thanks. That’s exactly why I was a history major and not a computer science or math major. Nitpicking (and comments) are welcome. Infinitude is about as mind-shattering as nothingness, though. Ultimately, in this context, to me, infinitude and oblivion seem almost interchangeable.

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