Scientists turned the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) back on after a three-year shutdown. The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest particle accelerator. Physicists and people interested in becoming superheroes alike are electrified by the possibilities. Let’s examine why this news, which comes to us from The Guardian, has so many people excited.
For physicists, the answer is straightforward. The shutdown left us with the cliffhanger of unfinished experiments and unanswered questions. The particle accelerator needed upgrades, which the pandemic extended. If all goes well, the Large Hadron Collider will run through the end of 2025. Just getting everything booted up will take about three months. After that, scientists will continue their search for dark matter, neutrinos, and other mysteries of particle physics.
For anyone more interested in the potential for superpowers, though, the LHC’s role is a bit more…theoretical. Particle accelerators are a popular threat or origin story these days as comics and older stories get updated to fit the times.
The Flash, Particle Accelerators, and The Large Hadron Collider
CW’s excellent show The Flash is an obvious recent example. In the Arrowverse, the particle accelerator at STAR Labs is at the center of nearly every superhero and supervillain origin story. Specifically, the explosion after Harrison Wells turns on his machine. Our soon-to-be titular hero even mentions that STAR Labs is “lightyears ahead of CERN,” which is the real-life agency in charge of the Large Hadron Collider.
When the particle accelerator malfunctions, antimatter and dark energy pulse through Central City. Meta-genes activate to create meta-humans by the thousands. Barry Allen becomes The Flash, putting his superpowers to use rounding up people who are doing bad things with their newfound abilities.
Team Flash uses the partially-destroyed building as their base of operations. In various episodes, the facility also functions as a hospital, a prison, and even a way to travel through time and dimensions.
Non-Sanctioned Uses for Particle Accelerators
The Justice League of America also uses a particle accelerator to bounce between parallel universes in their team up with the Power Rangers. Back in 2007, Spider-Man 3 gave us Sandman when an unlucky guy fell into a particle accelerator. His molecules bound together with sand. Neither of these are approved uses of the Large Hadron Collider. They’re also not the likely scenario of what happens if you find yourself in a particle accelerator when it’s running.
Angels & Demons included the CERN particle accelerator as a main plot point, even though it was still being built when the book came out in 2000. When the 2009 movie debuted, the LHC was about to be turned on for the first time. Antimatter captured by the collider threatened the Pope and all of Rome. CERN scientists worked with director Ron Howard and remarkably, much of the science is sound.
Long before any of these examples, the Ghostbusters wore particle accelerators on their backs. Proton packs are indeed portable particle accelerators. All that talk of not crossing the streams also has a basis in scientific reality. By design, a collider actually slams two streams of particles headlong into each other. The unpredictable nature of those in the Ghostbusters franchise is certainly not up to code.
There are a lot of fantastical uses (and misuses) of particle accelerators. Even the real-life versions like the Large Hadron Collider seem like science fiction. But it turns out that you’ve likely been in a room with a particle accelerator before. Today I learned that cathode ray tubes used in TVs and monitors until the early 2000s are in fact particle accelerators. Maybe all that time in front of the TV will give me superpowers!
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. If given superpowers, she would like to communicate with animals. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.