Physicists Warming Up the LHC Accidentally Create a Rainbow Universe

After two years of extensive upgrades, the Large Hadron Collider was warming up on March 21 for another round of experiments when a circuit controlling one of its massive magnets shorted out. Dismayed, scientists began repairing the equipment, hoping for a short delay. Just yesterday, CERN announced that the LHC could restart within days.

Then the unexpected happened. As physicists were testing the repairs by zipping a few spare protons around the 17 mile loop, the CMS detector picked up something unusual. The team feverishly pored over the data, and ultimately came to an unlikely conclusion—in their tests, they had accidentally created a rainbow universe.

“Rainbow universes were pure speculation before this happened,” said Jessica Czerniski, the CERN physicist who was overseeing the warm-up procedures. “We had some solid math backing us up, of course, but none of us ever dreamed we would live to see this day.”

An inside look at the LHC's CMS detector

First proposed back in the early 2000s, the theory of rainbow gravity posits that different wavelengths of light are affected by gravity in different ways. Rainbow universes are thought to be a natural result of rainbow gravity, but with the peculiar qualities of not having distinct beginnings. In other words, rainbow universes have been around since forever, which has physicists stumped over the “creation” at the LHC.

“When I first saw the paper posted on the arXiv [a site for scholarly publications], I almost spit out my coffee,” said Randall Pattinson, a professor of physics at the Princeton University. “Rainbow gravity has some real physics behind it, but actually seeing evidence of it? It’s like finding an original edition Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper that your daughter wanted for her birthday. It’s almost too good to be true.”

Technicians close to the CMS detector reported hearing a loud noise, something of a cross between screeching metal and tearing cloth. In a thick haze that hung over the magnet, initially thought to be smoke from the short circuit, they saw a shimmering halo that spanned the full spectrum of visible light which vanished after a few seconds. Scientists studying the CMS data later confirmed the anomaly lasted for about 2.6 seconds.

Czerniski and her team would like to repeat the conditions that led to the appearance of the rainbow universe, though only after carefully analyzing the current CMS data. “We’d like to ensure that there aren’t any unanticipated consequences from attempting to create a more stable version of the rainbow universe,” she said, acknowledging that CERN is aware of the public’s concerns over its experiments. (When the LHC was first started, some people feared the powerful accelerator would create a black hole here on Earth.)

A visualization of the data captured by the CMS detector

Among the curiosities Czerniski and her colleagues need to sort out is an artifact in the data that, when recreated in three-dimensions, appears to be the ghostly outline of a dolphin. At first they thought it was merely the computer’s desktop wallpaper bleeding through a transparent window, but after confirming the terminal’s settings, they dove deeper into the data. Subsequent analysis suggested the apparition is real as it registered at five sigma.

Should the CERN team be successful in creating another rainbow universe, proof of a rainbow gravity could force physicists to rethink the origins of the universe—the Big Bang theory, for example, would likely be thrown out. But such a confirmation could also finally bridge general relativity with quantum mechanics.

“We’re literally on the edge of our seats,” Czerniski said. “If this pans out, maybe we’ll finally be able to convince the international community to build the space-based particle accelerator we’ve been hoping for. There’s a perfect spot on the International Space Station for it—right next to the dolphin module that was installed last year.”