Physicists recalculate, find chance of sustainable black holes at Swiss supercollider facility
If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody is there to hear it [because the Earth had just been consumed by a man-made and supposedly harmless black hole], can you still hear the slightly-pudgy conservative from Philadelphia say “I told you so?”
This past fall, we watched as the Large Hadron Collider, a device buried far beneath Switzerland and designed to recreate an environment as last seen in the instant following the Big Bang, was being slowed down shortly after being started up preliminarily for reasons and complications far beyond my understanding.
In the weeks and months leading up to the September 10, 2008 power-up day, I had spent a good deal of time trying to raise awareness about the device, citing the ever-so-slight possibility that the LHC could create a planet-swallowing black hole as good reason not to go ahead with the experiments. On September 2, 2008, I wrote the following:
I may be stubborn, and I know I’m ill-informed, but I don’t like this thing.
I fail to see, for instance, the practical benefits of recreating the universe in the moments following its creation, and I lack any confidence whatsoever in the scientists who have designed the machine, as not even they know what it can or will do.
As far as I understand it, one of the goals of the device is to bridge the intellectual gap between theories about the interrelationships between small objects and those between large ones — apparently, the theories which Albert Einstein developed with regard to making rules for particle physics don’t seem to add up when the rules are applied to much larger objects. In order to answer these questions, so puzzling and frustrating to those much smarter than I, scientists plan to recreate the condition of the universe a millisecond after the Big Bang.
This involves the use of ten dimensions, far beyond the three spatial dimensions known to humankind. It involves the creation of miniature black holes and the search for the elusive Higgs’ Boson, a massive particle only predicted to exist and named after the guy–Higgs, I guess–who did not discover the particle, but rather was the first to float the idea that the particle might possibly exist.
Here’s the thing: While I’d rather Iran, for instance, never be permitted to possess working nuclear weapons, I have little problem with them conducting research regarding such weapons systems. The way I look at it, should one of their scientists have a crappy weekend and mess something up, the disastrous consequences will be somewhat localized. I am comforted that the consequences of any short-sightedness or stupidity will be relatively small. I do have a problem, though, with the possible instantaneous GLOBAL consequences of any short-sightedness or stupidity on the part of CERN and its network of brilliant scientists.
Here are people–mere humans–who, while much, much more intelligent than I, admittedly are only postulating–GUESSING, that is– with regard to much of the role, capabilities and potential of the Large Hadron Collider. Here are people who admitted that the chances of it causing a “global catastrophe” are slim. Here are people who, according to one nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner quoted in the New York Times, are more “concerned with public relations impact of what they, or others, say and write, than in making sure that the facts are presented with complete scientific objectivity.”
Here’s more from that April 2008 Times piece:
One problem is that society has never agreed on a standard of what is safe in these surreal realms when the odds of disaster might be tiny but the stakes are cosmically high. In such situations, probability estimates are often no more than “informed betting odds,” said Martin Rees, a Cambridge University cosmologist, the astronomer royal and the author of “Our Final Hour.” Adrian Kent, also of Cambridge, said in a paper in 2003 reviewing scientists’ failure to calculate adequately and characterize accurately risks to the public, that even the most basic question, “ ‘How improbable does a catastrophe have to be to justify proceeding with an experiment?’ seems never to have been seriously examined.”
That’s scary as hell, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
Independent studies, it seems, have placed the chance of a Collider-produced strangelet instantaneously turning the planet into a “dead, dense lump” at perhaps 50 million to one, less than one-half the odds of buying a single, winning Powerball ticket.
If the only thing at stake were, say, the immediate vaporization of the scientists and the facility, I’d give them a hearty “go for it.” However, because the entire planet may or may not be in jeopardy, I’d really like for everyone to be 100 percent certain of the device’s safety, and the odds of a global catastrophe to be absolutely zero.
Think about it — what other experiment, anywhere on Earth and in any field of study, has even a remote possibility of destroying the entire planet?
Some people have dismissed protests of CERN and its Large Hadron Collider as a function of the religious. For me, this has nothing to do with religion. I am a spiritual man, but this is more to do with ego, with negligence, and with potentially dangerous scientific enthusiasm and a “well, they say they’re experts” dismissive attitude gone unchecked in a case when the stakes are far too high.
Scientists are putting the entire planet and its six billion lives at risk so they can search for things which are only thought to exist. At what point does the rest of the world put aside the leave-it-to-the-experts apathy and stand up against unchecked fanaticism in the name of scientific progress? At what point do we leave some questions unanswered? At what point do we question people who are willing to bet everything to confirm a theory about a theory about something which may or may not provide any benefit of consequence?
While it is true that we would not have the Internet had it not been for the efforts of the people at CERN, and while it is true that this machine may very well produce benefits to all of the world’s problems, at this point in time, not even those who laid the groundwork for the Large Hadron Collider know for sure what it will do. What we do know, though, is that there is some risk to the entire planet. I am not anti-progress, but I certainly believe in erring on the side of humanity as we know it when it comes to the cost-benefit tradeoff.
There is so much concern right now as to how carbon emissions or styrofoam cups or oil drilling will slowly harm the Earth over the next 50 or 100 or 1000 years — where’s the same concern for the potentially catastrophic actions of overzealous scientists guided by enthusiasm and conjecture?
At some point, even the brightest minds in the world need to step back, look at those around them, walk outside and interact with the men, women and children of Earth, and decide that some things are better left alone.
Well, Fox News is reporting today that a trio of physicists have reexamined the mathematical aspects of the LHC’s proposed creation of miniature black holes, and have decided that they are NOT, in fact, so sure that the device will not cause a cataclysmic reaction which could destroy the Earth.
Where the scientists at CERN were so positive that the black holes would almost instantaneously disappear–sorry, but even that isn’t good enough for me–the trio of physicists have determined that, in fact, the black holes could stick around for as long as a second, if not longer, and because of those conclusions have expressed worry that other scientists may have underestimated the potential for catastrophe.
This uncertainty was at the heart of my worry and my argument that, for once, we should leave things well enough alone. First, we do not know for certain what benefits, if any, will come from the Large Hadron Collider; second, and far more important, we don’t know for sure that bringing the device to its capacity will be safe for the planet.
Many of you were comfortable with the results and statements put forth by the CERN scientists. I was not, and I hope that these alternative results are enough to show that, gee whiz, perhaps nobody is as certain as they should be given what’s at stake. For once, let’s put ego aside and err on the side of caution, on the side of life. Please. At some point, enough has to be enough. When it comes to the entire planet, even the slightest of risk should outweigh any benefits, determined or indeterminate.
At the very least, before the scientists at CERN attempt to crank up the device this summer, we should send a little note into outer space along with Gene Roddenberry’s ashes. It could be short and sweet: