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What would happen if you put your hand in the Large Hadron Collider.
October 1, 2010 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Several physicists weigh in on what would happen if you were to place your hand in the proton stream of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. There's not a definite answer...the responses range from "nothing" to "you'd die for sure, instantly".

Other questions they consider:
"If there was a galaxy made completely out of antiparticles, would it behave the same way as ours?"
"If the universe was to come into existence again, like another Big Bang, would we have all the same forces and the same physical constants?
"What would happen to the Earth if one of the closest stars... went supernova?"
"Do you have a favorite symbol, and why?"
posted by albrecht (53 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
the responses range from "nothing" to "you'd die for sure, instantly"

Actually, it'd be both until someone opened the box to check.
posted by nickmark at 1:50 PM on October 1, 2010 [54 favorites]


It gave LeVar Burton superpowers!
posted by Artw at 1:52 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wait, it doesn't work like an intrinsic field subtractor?
posted by grouse at 1:53 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's a pointless question.

The LHC operates under a very high vacuum, and the magnets surrounding the beampath are cooled with liquid helium.

Those things would pretty much destroy your hand before you even got to the beam. (Also, you'd mess up the beam by breaking the vacuum and magnetic field.)

If the moon were made of cheese, would you eat it?

Good video though
posted by schmod at 1:54 PM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


"That's just it! We don't know! Maaaaaybe something bad, maaaaaybe something good! I guess we'll never know!"
posted by entropicamericana at 1:55 PM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Uh, didn't someone stick their head in one once, on accident?

Yep.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:55 PM on October 1, 2010 [11 favorites]


Anatoly Bugorski, a Russian scientist, got hit in the face with a high-energy proton beam in 1978. He was injured, but not seriously, and completed his doctorate after he recovered.

An electron beam would be more devastating -- lighter particles deposit their energy more quickly than heavier particles like protons.

(On preview, what he said).
posted by auto-correct at 1:56 PM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'll tell you what you'll find. You'll find The Flying Spaghetti Monster!

Oh, wait, I thought you said Large Hadron Colander.
posted by studentbaker at 1:57 PM on October 1, 2010 [18 favorites]


If the moon were made of cheese, would you eat it?

yeah mos def
posted by Greg Nog at 1:58 PM on October 1, 2010 [8 favorites]


Reportedly, he saw a flash "brighter than a thousand suns", but did not feel any pain. The left half of Bugorski's face swelled up beyond recognition, and over the next several days started peeling off, showing the path that the proton beam (moving near the speed of light) had burned through parts of his face, his bone, and the brain tissue underneath... Bugorski completely lost hearing in the left ear and only a constant, unpleasant internal noise remained. The left half of his face was paralyzed, due to the destruction of nerves.

Holy shit!!!!!I wonder if he has superpowers?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 2:01 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Next week on Let's Ask Dr. Manhattan: "Why are you so blue?"
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:02 PM on October 1, 2010


Also, not much surprise that particle physicists can't agree on the biological effects of a beam - you can tell they're just sptiballing. I'd be interested to hear a medical physicist who works with proton therapy talk about this.
posted by auto-correct at 2:05 PM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


He was injured, but not seriously

??? um, the article says he lost his sense of hearing, half his face was permanently paralyzed and he suffered marked fatigue (it implies for the rest of his life)
posted by Bwithh at 2:05 PM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


where's that manos dude when you need him?
posted by pyramid termite at 2:11 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Bwithh, you're right, of course. When I said "seriously", I was thinking about the scale of injuries you might expect when getting hit with a proton beam; frying your brain or losing an arm or something. He obviously was injured, just less so than I expected.
posted by auto-correct at 2:11 PM on October 1, 2010


I tried to compare the energies of the accelerator Anatoli Bugorski was working on to the LHC beam; I can't tell for sure, but it looks like the LHC has something like 50x the particle energy, and I bet it has far more particles in the beam, too.

My guess is that the results could range from getting a hole in your hand, complete with severe burns and a full-body bath of high-energy radiation, to an immediate and violent explosion. The LHC beam has as much energy as an air-dropped bomb - I don't think your hand could stop them beam well enough to dump all of the energy, but it might knock it far enough off target to hit the sides of the accelerator.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:11 PM on October 1, 2010


Imagine every atom in your body exploding at the speed of light.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:15 PM on October 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


The video series this is part of is great, BTW. Thanks for the post.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:18 PM on October 1, 2010


Isn't this what we have monkeys in cages for?
posted by nomadicink at 2:21 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fellow in the pale blue shirt mentions that the stored energy in the LHC beam is like 600 mega-joules, right? That's the magnitude of energy that comes out of a pretty good-sized electric power plant every second (for example, the smaller of the two nuclear power plants in my state). Of course that's electricity, not a beam of protons - I don't know anything about how it all compares in terms of the nature of the energies, but I thought that was a possibly useful reference point.
posted by nickmark at 2:21 PM on October 1, 2010


Imagine every atom in your body exploding at the speed of light.

That would be... bad.
posted by nickmark at 2:23 PM on October 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


I find it scary that the guys running this massive machine don't actually know the answer to this question.
posted by Solomon at 2:24 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


The most annoying symbol was always xi. Because it was both hard to say and hard to draw :(
posted by scrutiny at 2:29 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


The part about the Dirac bra-cket at the end. Funny :)
posted by hanoixan at 2:32 PM on October 1, 2010


E = m*[1-(v/c)2]-1/2
posted by clavdivs at 2:38 PM on October 1, 2010


I find it scary that the guys running this massive machine don't actually know the answer to this question.

One of them should have said "Dammit Jim, I'm a physicist, not a doctor!"
posted by TedW at 2:46 PM on October 1, 2010 [4 favorites]


In 1996 he applied unsuccessfully for disabled status to receive his free epilepsy medication. (from the Anatoli Bugorski wikipedia link)

I didn't realize Russia had adopted an American style healthcare system.
posted by TedW at 2:50 PM on October 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


If the moon were made of cheese, would you eat it?

Only if it was made of spare ribs, and I'd polish it off with a nice tall Budweiser.
posted by wcfields at 3:09 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find it scary that the guys running this massive machine don't actually know the answer to this question.

Isn't that why they built the machine in the first place?
posted by IndigoJones at 3:39 PM on October 1, 2010


MetaFilter: It gave LeVar Burton superpowers!
posted by Sys Rq at 3:49 PM on October 1, 2010


Are the people running the beam the right ones to ask? I would bet there have been many biologists who have have tried putting organic material in accelerators under controlled conditions and can give better informed answers. I remember visiting a synchrotron radiation source when I was at school and there were various experiments involving biological impacts under way there.
posted by biffa at 4:04 PM on October 1, 2010


Oh, I read about this in an Isaac Asimov story. What happens is the worst conceivable outcome: a series of puns by Isaac Asimov.
posted by No-sword at 4:28 PM on October 1, 2010 [12 favorites]


the stored energy in the LHC beam is like 600 mega-joules
For comparison, the back of my envelope says that boiling a human-sized bag of mostly water would take about 200 MJ. So obviously if the entire beam energy were dumped into your body, it would be bad. I assume the uncertainty is in how much / how fast you would absorb particles from the beam.

The LHC does have some impressive beam dumps for getting rid of the beam in a hurry if there's an emergency shutdown.
posted by hattifattener at 4:29 PM on October 1, 2010


I'm not sure the people in the video are all closely involved in the LHC as everyone here seems to be assuming. The video is one of a (very interesting) series called Sixty Symbols, a fun physics/astronomy site run by the Univ of Nottingham.

If you check the snippets about the people and their research areas, only one of them is even particularly interested in particle physics per se. And you guessed it... he's the guy in the video who actually knows the numbers offhand about the size and energy of the beam.

So... as you'd expect, the people who don't know much about the field but are asked to take their best guess have a wide range of views. The one who knows more is able to bring some numbers to the table and take a better guess. And even so given he knows about particle interactions, not particle interactions with large objects like a hand, he rightly acknowledges what the unknowns are.

Given what we know about what happened in the one "experiment" conducted into this, namely...

Over the next few days, skin on the back of his head and on his face just next to his left nostril peeled away to reveal the path the beam had burned through the skin, the skull, and the brain tissue. The inside of his head continued to burn away: all the nerves on the left were gone in two years, paralyzing that side of his face. Still, not only did Bugorski not die, but he remained a normally functioning human being, capable even of continuing in science.

... and given that the LHC packs a vastly bigger energy punch than a Soviet accelerator from the 1970s would have, well it seems clear that putting your hand in the beam would be very bad for you indeed.

Btw, interesting to see the difference when the same group of people are asked about the effects of a supernova near the Earth. A lot of them are astronomers, therefore talk knowledgeably and are consistent with each other in the answers they come up with.
posted by philipy at 5:02 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


If the moon were made of cheese, would you eat it?

Depends. What kind of cheese?
posted by brundlefly at 5:19 PM on October 1, 2010


Just kidding. Of course I would eat it.
posted by brundlefly at 5:19 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mr. McGee, don't make me angry. You ... wouldn't ... like me ... when I'm angry.

HULK SMASH!
posted by bwg at 5:21 PM on October 1, 2010


Eating a moon-sized piece of cheese would render ever pooping again the fevered dream of a madman. I still might do it.
posted by planet at 5:41 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


One counterintuitive feature of particle beams is that the more kinetic energy the beam has, the less it tends to interact with matter. The interactions are complicated and depend on the beam type, energy, luminosity, and target material. One common tool for estimating interaction is the Bethe formula. It would probably give a good estimate for this case.

I remember as an undergraduate trying to calculate what would happen to a cricket in the beam path of RHIC. They would explode ---if the beam energy was low enough. Raise the beam energy and the rate of heating would slow down.
posted by Humanzee at 5:48 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Actually, from the wikipedia article:

At low energy, the energy loss according to the Bethe formula therefore decreases approximately as 1 / v2 with increasing energy. It reaches a minimum for approx. E = 3Mc2, where M is the mass of the particle (for protons, this would be about at 3000 MeV). For highly relativistic cases ( \beta \approx 1), the energy loss increases again, logarithmically.

The LHC is currently running at 3,000,000 MeV (3 TeV), 1000 times the energy where absorption is at a minimum.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:22 PM on October 1, 2010


The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:23 PM on October 1, 2010


Looks as if, in the words of Facebook, it's complicated.

I'm not a physicist. Anyone want to explain roughly what's going on in the graph on page 2?

Looks like there's more effect at lower energies, but then more again at very high ones like the 7 TeV they can reach in the LHC.
posted by philipy at 6:29 PM on October 1, 2010


Solomon: "I find it scary that the guys running this massive machine don't actually know the answer to this question."

The people we should be scared for are their research assistants. I recall being offered a health and life insurance plan when employed as a GTA/GRA. The defining features were that they were dirt cheap, and had payout caps. I wonder where that will go when the legislation to outlaw such caps ends. I'm guessing the premiums would bankrupt most grad students.
posted by pwnguin at 8:03 PM on October 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find it scary that the guys running this massive machine don't actually know the answer to this question.
Well, they're not sticking their hands in to find out!
posted by delmoi at 9:49 PM on October 1, 2010


Coming up on Mythbusters: Tori, Grant and Kari rig up a ballistics gel hand and drive down to the Stanford Linear Accelerator...
posted by JDC8 at 10:29 PM on October 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


The people in the video are not "running this massive machine". They are just some scientists at a British univ who had some kind of us "Ask us anything" session for fun. It's not that different than if someone had asked the question on AskMeFi and the scientiists here gave their 2c on what they thought would happen.

See my first comment for more info.
posted by philipy at 10:58 PM on October 1, 2010


Fantastic video series, thanks albrecht!
posted by jet_manifesto at 3:00 AM on October 2, 2010


Eating a moon-sized piece of cheese would render ever pooping again the fevered dream of a madman. I still might do it.
posted by planet at 5:41 PM on October 1


Eponysterical.
posted by cronholio at 4:05 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


If the moon were made of cheese, would you eat it?
Only if it was made of spare ribs yt , and I'd polish it off with a nice tall Budweiser.


You can imagine any beer at all and you're imagining...Budweiser??
posted by Sutekh at 9:38 AM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like the young beardy guy. He looks as if he's really trying to do the math in his head.

Poor Anatoly! I never had any idea. His life would probably make a good FPP if there were enough materials in English.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:17 PM on October 2, 2010


Imagine every atom in your body exploding at the speed of light.

That would be... bad.


Better than every atom in your body exploding very, very slowly.
posted by Xezlec at 5:32 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was always fond of asking physicists what would happen if you were traveling in a car at the speed of light and you turned your headlights on.
posted by tybeet at 7:33 AM on October 3, 2010


How come? Did they give weird answers? I would expect that would be an easy one for most physicists, since it's probably used in every undergraduate relativity course to illustrate how Lorentz transforms behave. (Well, the car is traveling at nearly the speed of light; that “nearly” is important.)
posted by hattifattener at 12:12 PM on October 3, 2010


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