Column: In a world gone…

What a week. Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a Max Factor-wearing barnyard animal. The NFL lost Tom Brady to a season-ending injury. And I just found out that the voiceover guy who was known for doing those “In a world gone…” movie trailers died. His name was Don LaFontaine. He was 68 years old.

Oh, and the world almost ended.

What’s that? The world almost ended?

Yes, scientists in Europe almost ended the world. As you might have noticed, they failed. And thank goodness. The final season of The Shield is only two episodes old, and I really need to know how it ends. (My guess is that it ends with detective Vic Mackey saying something cool. My prediction: Right after taking a bullet from Dutch in the final scene, Mackey will say something like, “I don’t get shot in the chest with bullets! I shoot bullets out of my chest!” Then he’ll flex and a bullet will shoot out of his chest and kill a Los Mags gang leader who is about to shoot Dutch. Then Mackey will say, “You’re welcome,” get in his car and drive down Alvarado. In the final shot, in a move that breaks the convention of the fourth wall that separates the characters and the viewers, Mackey will turn to the camera and say, “On the gritty streets of Los Angeles, Vic Mackey is the ultimate survivor.” Then the credits will roll and I will look for my shirt, which I was not aware I had removed.)
Or Mackey might retire quietly with half his pension and start that bonsai garden he’s been thinking about. We’re only two episodes in. It could go either way. I don’t know the answer yet. This is why I need the world not to end.

The end of the world is a topic that has fascinated me since childhood. One day while I was home sick from elementary school, my mom – for reasons I’ll never fully understand – had me watch a video about Nostradamus’s predictions for the end of the world. It included footage of the antichrist directing the battle of Armageddon from an underground bunker. I don’t think I enjoyed a full night of sleep again until I was 19.

I became obsessed with stories about the end of the world. Nuclear winter, meteors, the Book of Revelations – I was all over it. Looking back, I’m not sure why. There is not much one can do about the end of the world. I guess I just wanted to be in the know if it was going down. Ten thousand years later, when highly-intelligent, mutated gor-phins (body of a gorilla, head of a dolphin) discovered my frozen corpse, I wanted one archaeologist gor-phin to say to the other, “This one looks like he knew it was coming – like he was smarter than the rest.”

(An artist’s representation of things to come. Photo by foshie/flickr.)

I still follow these end-of-the-world stories, albeit with a slightly less-morbid outlook. In case you missed the latest reason never to fall asleep again, on Wednesday scientists in an underground lab on the French-Swiss border successfully fired a beam of protons all the way around the 17-mile tunnel inside the world’s largest particle collider. Their goal is to recreate the conditions that existed in the first billionth of a second after the universe was created 14 billion years ago – conditions that were created, perhaps, by another group of scientists 14 billion years ago. Did your mind just explode?

This is my favorite part of the Associated Press story:

After a series of trial runs, two white dots flashed on a computer screen at 10:36 a.m. (0836 GMT) indicating that the protons had traveled the full length of the $3.8 billion Large Hadron Collider.

The world spends $3.8 billion on a particle collider and how we find out it works is through two white dots flashing on a computer screen. Couldn’t they splurge for one font? Would some Helvetica have broken the budget? I also have to wonder, what happens if something goes wrong? If the world is about to be swallowed by a black hole, I want klaxons sounding and lights flashing and jets scrambling and one white-haired scientist pounding his fist against an observation window yelling, “You had no right to play god!”

Instead, we will probably get two red dots.

Yes, I just mentioned a black hole. This is where the end-of-the-world part enters the equation. Skeptics are worried that when scientists eventually fire protons at each other from the opposite direction, the collision could imperil the earth. (“Imperil” and “earth” are two words you never want to see in the same sentence, right up there with “slapdash” and “airplane,” or “naked” and “Hasselhoff.”)

According to the Associated Press:

The skeptics theorized that a byproduct of the collisions could be micro black holes, subatomic versions of collapsed stars whose gravity is so strong they can suck in planets and other stars. “It’s nonsense,” said James Gillies, chief spokesman for CERN, before Wednesday’s start. CERN is backed by leading scientists like Britain’s Stephen Hawking in dismissing the fears and declaring the experiments to be absolutely safe.

If you’re not assured by Stephen Hawking, perhaps you can take comfort from the information presented in this accurate rap video, which was created by science writer Kate McAlpine while she was working in the press office of the super collider. It has received over 2.9 million views on YouTube. What it lacks in cohesive choreography and dope-ass beats it makes up for in easy-to-understand scientific explanations.
The good news in all this is that the information gained from this experiment could lead to the discovery of a hypothetical particle – the Higgs boson – that is believed to give mass to all other particles. It would be nice if scientists knew what things were made of. It would change the world.

For instance, such knowledge might make it easier for doctors to put an NFL player’s knee back together because they will finally know what a knee is made of. As a Cleveland Browns fan, this would represent a gigantic jump in my quality-of-life. Of course, a Browns Super Bowl victory is a sure sign that the world is about to end, so, from where I’m sitting, all of this progress is a mixed blessing at best.

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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