Protons, Grids and Black Holes

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On September 10th, a multi-billion dollar science experiment began that could change life forever… and you may never have even heard about it.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a project nine years and some $8 billion in the making, has begun smashing subatomic particles together, and will continue to do so over the course of the next year, in a 17-mile racetrack beneath Switzerland. The LHC is the largest and most complex physics experiment ever conceived.

The LCH accelerates two opposing streams of protons to within 99.99991% of the speed of light. It then merges the two particle ‘beams’ and forces a collision that is anticipated to reveal unexplained or unheard of concepts of physics, such as dark and anti-matter, the elusive Higgs boson and perhaps alternate dimensions. Essentially, the LHC is set to re-create the Big Bang to study what matter was like at the moment of its creation, and why it behaves the way it does today.

So what does a giant particle smasher have to do with our industry?

Enter The Grid.

Ian O’Neill, writing for Universe Today, says “This historic experiment will require a massive data collection and storage effort, re-writing the rules of data handling. Every five seconds, LHC collisions will generate the equivalent of a DVD-worth of data, that’s a data production rate of one gigabyte per second.”

Tim Berners-Lee (not Al Gore), a physicist at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) is accredited with merging hypertext with an existing network of protocols called the Internet to form the World Wide Web in the early 1990’s. Now CERN is poised to yet again to usher in a new era of communication as well as physics.

To deal with such astronomically large amounts of data sets, CERN developed the LHC Computing Grid; a huge network of computers and processors designed in Tiers and connected by dedicated 10-gig/sec fiber-optic cables.

CERN has created “middleware”, an open-source platform named Globus that is designed to sift through this avalanche of data to find specific data spread among thousands of servers, and gather it together seamlessly as though it’s contained in one folder on your PC.

It’s a form of cloud computing where all information is contained on a network, or grid, and is accessible at all times. The Grid, or a spawn thereof, will have the ability to make the internet essentially transparent, providing instant and on-demand data and access that is 10,000 times faster than current broadband connections. It envisions a world where people stop storing information on home computers and entrusts it all to the internet. In fact, one technology already emerging from the LHC is dynamic-switching, the creation of a dedicated channel for web users to download large files or data, such as full-length films, in seconds.

Most importantly, think about the implications.

For online businesses, this instant gratification system could put a sales person directly in your face much like video conferencing does right now, but faster and more efficient. And would those businesses be online anymore since ‘online’ doesn’t exist? Would the grid just be a portal to the business directly, cutting out any middle men? Where would search fall? I imagine a search platform in some instance or other would exist, but how would it work? Companies could potentially inject their own ads into this free and on-demand environment, bypassing companies like Google. I think online advertising will either become extinct or conversely spread everywhere in a quasi-Blade Runner type of existence.

What will this mean for internet users and website owners? Will we even need companies like Comcast or AT&T to dole out ridiculously throttled bandwidth, or will we have access to free internet services anywhere in the world? What would happen to the ISPs? Would they go bankrupt or would they try to find a way to cash in or evolve with this new technology? Maybe we won’t need ISPs, but then who do you go to if your ‘grid’ (for lack of a better term) is offline?

Think about the personal computer industry. Would we even need them in their current form? Will another company step up to the plate and usher in a new era of personal computers designed around this new type of cloud technology? Will Apple, Gateway and HP PCs be relegated to the quaint, curious contraptions such as my generation relates to Betamaxes and record players?

Or, as Computerworld puts it, “will the LHC Grid just think deeply and say ’42’?”

This kind of open source, omnipresent digital age opens up thousands of doors for the one it could potentially close on current internet usage. But whatever doors are opened, I would bet that our notions of communication, and the Internet, will be smashed alongside little, whizzing protons.

Post Script:
There is a possibility that the LHC will form black holes that could merge with each other and devour the Earth. CERN scientists say that if these black holes do form they would not only be microscopic, but would only exist for the smallest fraction of a second. But, if a whirling vortex of doom is eating away front lawn, you’ll know why.

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