Fact-checking LeVar Burton's ConCERNed

When I saw LeVar Burton's new comic ConCERNed, I knew immediately what I had to do.

I looked across the breakfast table and said, "Honey, could you please read this?"

Because yes, I am married to a physicist who works on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and I couldn't resist hearing what he had to say about it.

Fortunately my husband has read a fair number of comics, and he was willing to suspend disbelief. He saw right away that it was a classic origin story, and the fact that the main character can generate material objects with his mind bothered me more than him. (OK, I can see a chunk of metal, maybe. But a set of golf clubs?)

But what about the physics?

For those who are new to this, the LHC uses magnets to send a beam of subatomic particles spinning around in a large ring; when the beam is going really fast, the particles are smashed into a fixed target or another beam. The high energy of this collision causes the particles to break up into other particles, and by looking at the results, physicists can deduce all kinds of facts (most of them fairly boring) about the structure of matter.

When the LHC was about to go online, in 2008, lots of people got worried that it would cause mini black holes to be formed that would destroy the earth. Many of them made YouTube videos about it, and someone even filed a lawsuit, but in the end, the experiment went on. They turned on the collider and... it broke. A faulty connection caused the superconductors to go to normal conductivity—still with a huge amount of current flowing through them—so they heated up, which caused the liquid helium around them to rapidly convert to gas, which basically caused a big explosion. Or at least that's what we were told. (I got a lengthy explanation of how it happened; here's the short version.)

In the comic, Simon Barstow, PhD, a physicist who looks surprisingly like LeVar Burton, travels to CERN to investigate the real cause of the mishap. Burton gets credit for doing his homework, because the backgrounds and interiors do look authentic. On the other hand, the helium leak caused massive damage, so the illustration of Burton opening a panel in an otherwise intact ring is wrong. Even worse is the fact that he immediately gets a jolt of what looks like electricity. The power wouldn't be turned on if anyone was working on the equipment, for two excellent reasons: It's superconducting, so the current would be huge, and in order to have a superconducting current, you have to cool the apparatus down to 2 degrees Kelvin, or about -271 C. Similarly, the panel showing a white-coated scientist standing next to the ring, surrounded by energy flux—no. Just no. He'd be dead.

(I was scoffing at the scientists wearing white coats, but my husband says a colleague of his does indeed wear a white coat at the lab. He wears it with shorts and sandals, though, not a suit and tie.)

Still, nothing about this comic rings egregiously false. The funding agencies who want the scientists to get on with it. The scientists doing their own thing regardless. OK, Simon shuts down the LHC with his mind, but that's just awesome, and a good example of why science fiction can be a lot more entertaining than science facts.

The eight-page comic, which will run in the last issue of MySpace Dark Horse Presents, really just gives us a setup; by the end of it, Barstow has been fired and nothing is resolved. The characters are pretty bland and the story is straightforward: An entire hostage situation is disposed of in five panels. I hope Burton will continue the comic but do a bit more research, maybe get to know the place. CERN is filled with colorful, quirky characters doing interesting things, and digging into the subject, rather than using it as a stage set, could produce a much better story.

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