On physics-gone-haywire show FlashForward, characters recently suggested that an accelerator in Palo Alto, CA might have caused a worldwide blackout that killed millions by conducting "proton-driven plasma-wakefield acceleration" experiments. Now scientists at the real accelerator in Palo Alto have responded.

The premise of FlashForward is that everybody in the world blacks out at the same time, and for a few minutes they see what's going to happen to them six months into the future. Hence, the "flashforward" of the title. Because everybody is blacked out during this flashforward, of course, chaos reigns. Planes and cars crash; people die. It's a strange and intriguing disaster, and now characters on the show are hinting that it was caused by a physics research facility in Palo Alto, clearly modeled on an actual facility associated with Stanford University in Palo Alto. On the website for the Stanford Linear Accelerator, SLAC for short, you can find an informative FAQ responding to FlashForward's science flailing.


They explain that plasma-wakefield acceleration experiments have gone on at SLAC, but only with electrons. They write:

SLAC does have a cutting-edge plasma-wakefield acceleration program that is creating the next generation of particle accelerators. However, it works by accelerating electrons (and their anti-matter cousin positrons) rather than the much heavier protons. At this time, there are no experiments that attempt to accelerate protons using plasma wakefields.

In addition, no matter what you did with these experiments, you wouldn't get a flashforward:

Plasma-wakefield acceleration is just an advanced technique to boost particles to high energies, something that particle physicists have been doing for decades. Even the most speculative theories rooted in real physics make no prediction that anything like a flashforward could occur.

"Although we can use particle accelerators to essentially look backward in time to recreate the conditions of the universe soon after the big bang, there is no known way to look into the future," says Mark Hogan, chief experimental scientist for the plasma wakefield program at SLAC's FACET.

In other words, FlashForward is full of crap. These scientists are too nice to say that directly, so I'll just say it for them.

via SLAC and Symmetry Breaking