The end of the world is nigh... or is it science's greatest leap forward?

Those who announce the end of the world is at hand usually defer to some higher spiritual source.

Whether it be Nostradamus or some complicated message derived from reading between the lines of the Bible, it's an area where logically-minded scientists rarely get involved.

However, while a group of scientists from the four corners of the globe, including some from Yorkshire, were gathering in Switzerland in the hope of journeying back in time to birth of the universe, a German chemist attempted to spoil the party.

Professor Otto Rssler has long been one of the most vocal opponents of the unwieldy sounding Large Hadron Collider (LHC), fearing the dabbling at CERN, the nuclear research organisation in Geneva,could result in a series of little black holes which will in his own words "grow exponentially and eat the planet from the inside". Within four years the earth could be sucked inside out.

While it may sound like Prof Rssler is guilty of mistaking Star Trek for a documentary, he's not alone. A second lawsuit has also been filed by environmentalists in Hawaii, who are similarly doubtful about the merits of recreating the moment just after the Big Bang.

Neither attempt looks set to postpone the big switch on tomorrow, but one of the scientists leading the experiment was moved to appear on Radio 4's Today programme. Professor Chris Lewellyn Smith reassured Britons contemplating the best way to spend their final days that there was no need to panic and dismissed claims we will end up drowning in a primordial soup of our own making as "absurd".

If he's wrong, there will be no one around to argue, but even if he's right, the pursuit of the missing piece at the heart of the seemingly unfathomable jigsaw of the universe still has the potential to be the biggest white elephant of all time.

Since the seeds of the experiment were sown some 15 years ago, it has cost $5bn – including a multi-million pound UK contribution. Critics have wondered whether such spending will ever be justified, but while the scientific world holds its breath, its supporters, among them Dr Dan Tovey from the University of Sheffield, are confident the investment will pay off. Dr Tovey and his team have worked exhaustively with more than 2,000 collaborators to build one of the key parts of the collider and are now eagerly awaiting the first results.

"It's a huge concept to grasp, but whatever we see, we can be sure that it will fundamentally change our understanding of the universe," says Dr Tovey. "We can all be justifiably proud that British technology is at the heart of the biggest science experiment ever. The leap forward that the LHC represents almost guarantees that we shall see something interesting. We hope to find evidence for a new particle called the Higgs boson, sometimes called the 'God particle', which is believed to be the origin of mass.

"If we can, it will underpin our established theories of 'how the universe works'. If we can't, then we are certain to find something else even more exciting and we'll have to go back to the drawing board for new theories. The sense of anticipation worldwide is enormous."

Described as the most challenging and complex scientific endeavour since the Apollo programme put astronauts on the moon, if scientists do discover God's particle the world will be one step nearer manipulating gravity and the tractor beams of science fiction could in theory become a reality.

"It is no exaggeration to say it is certainly the biggest scientific experiment so far," says Frank Close, professor of physics at Exeter College, Oxford, and an eminent popularist of science. "In 1908, who could have imagined the World Wide Web, the Apollo missions etc? What is certain is that the LHC will reveal what the universe was like much nearer to the universe's 'Big Bang' than we have ever seen – and give us the greatest possible clues we have ever had as to why we are here and where we came from. Only 'nature' knows the answers today on the big picture; but soon we will. What they will be is as unimaginable as my analogy from a century ago.

"Actually, what effectively we will have is a time machine that recreates the universe as it was at the start of time. When the accelerator is activated, it will be like opening a new window. The design of the LHC in itself is worthy of huge admiration; this in itself has been a little like a landing on Mars, let alone the Moon."

Away from questions of the LHC's legacy to the world of science, others say the super atom smasher is already having positive knock-on effective in terms of business – including the economy.

Professor Robert Cywinski, from the University of Leeds, has no doubt as to the relevance of the experiment to everyday life.

"Einstein's theories of relativity not only revolutionised our ways of thinking in the early 1900s but caught the popular imagination of the 'man on the street'," he says. "I think there's the very great prospect that what happens at CERN from this summer, one way or another, will capture the popular imagination away from what non-scientists sometimes see as the arcane world of particle physics. The small stuff which makes up our universe is real – the problem in 'our' world is we only see the bigger picture – a chair, 'us', a newspaper. But for scientists hunting the super small, what's about to happen is as exciting as any Indiana Jones adventure – and everyone else should be excited about it too.

"To answer Big Questions about the universe, we need very high energies, comparable to those available in the Big Bang. We therefore need high energy particle accelerators, which in turn are very large and very expensive. However, the expenditure on these accelerators also provides jobs in technical, research and development. There are now more than 15,000 particle accelerators in the world, but only about 100 of these are used for physics; others are used in industry. But by far the greatest number is used in medicine for cancer radiotherapy and radiopharmaceutical production."

The experiment will also result in the crossing of a new frontier in cyberspace. The Grid, a step beyond the world wide web,

will link computers across the globe to enable access to results from the huge experiment as they roll out.

"At every stage of understanding the universe better, the benefits to civilisation have been immeasurable," says LHC scientist Professor Brian Cox, from the University of Manchester, whose other claim to fame is playing keyboards with D:Ream in the 1990s. "None of those big leaps were made with us knowing what was going to happen. This experiment is also incredibly exciting and incredibly difficult. There's a kind of magic energy we've not been able to get to and we know from previous experiments that's where things happen. Now for the first time we'll be crossing that barrier."

Finally it seems, in the world of atom smashing, Star Trek's most famous split infinitive is about to come true.

Back to the top of the page