The Sciences

Brian Cox calls 'em like he sees 'em

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 8, 2008 4:09 AM


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The Large Hadron Collider in Europe will commence smacking protons together inserting protons into the magnetic circulator on Wednesday, September 10 (no protons will be harmed -- yet -- in the making of this experiment). Thing is, as I've noted before, a handful of people with little or no understanding of the science involved claim the LHC might create a black hole or a quantum strangelet which will consume the Earth. These people are wrong. They are, however, scaring lots of other people because the press is eager to make controversy where none exists. A couple of crackpots make a ridiculous claim, it involves esoteric physics, a newspaper or online site laps it up... and thousands of people becomes terrified from something that physically cannot happen. Folks: the LHC is a doorway to the Universe. It will open and we will see wonders we've only guessed at so far. It will provide us with physical data into our theories of reality, solidify the blueprints we've made into actual edifices. But it will not, it can not, destroy the Earth.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so. My friend Brian Cox, a physicist at CERN (the lab running the LHC), has a lot to say about this. He's been quoted all over the place (sometimes the media do the right thing), and made himself clear. The people making these claims of doom and gloom are, in his words... well, go read the article where he's quoted. His words are funny, if somewhat derogatory. This is coming to a head now that LHC is about to rev up. In that article, it says that some scientists are getting death threats. Death threats! To people who are trying to understand the Universe! These scientists are like you, and they're like me: they want understand things, to better our knowledge, to increase the human awareness of the entire nature of reality. And some people want to kill them. Brian has much to say about this as well. His wife, Gia, has posted on her blog a great letter Brian wrote about this. My favorite part is this:

What I would say is that it is not sensible to hold an opinion in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Whilst I understand that much of the language of particle physics is opaque, there does come a time when it is worth accepting the views of experts. The analogy I would give is the design of aircraft wings - I am happy to trust an expert in aerodynamics to get it right rather than offer my own opinion about what shape they should be. It’s really the case that the particle physics community are sensible, rational human beings who go about their research because they believe that exploring the subatomic world is good for our civilization, not to mention interesting. It is also true that if anyone, including myself, had any doubt about the safety of what we are doing, we would stop immediately. I and all my colleagues consider our personal safety and the safety of our families to be FAR more important than the search for the Higgs particle - indeed, if the risk were even as high as 1 in a billion, or whatever people quote, then I would be campaigning with you to stop it.

This is not some cold, calculating scientist. This is a man who cares deeply about science, about exploration, and about his fellow man. The caricaturization of scientists has contributed to this problem, and I hope that by reading his words, my words, Gia's words, you'll see that science is not emotionless and careless. We do this because we are deeply emotional, deeply caring. The Universe itself is deep. It's the shallow people who cannot grasp that.

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