Phew. We're still here. Thanks be to the God-particle! That was a close one. Or not.
Maybe you missed it but those crazy European physicists cranked up the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) and, lo and behold, we haven't been sucked into oblivion! If you listened carefully, you may have heard the clink of Champagne flutes, celebrating the achievement.
Nestled 300 feet beneath the French-Swiss border just outside Geneva, the world's "biggest and most expensive particle accelerator," as The New York Times describes it, the LHC, accelerates protons powered by 7 trillion electron volts apiece. The protons are smashed together "to create tiny fireballs" in order to recreate the immediate post-Big Bang conditions that "last prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old."
We're talking about a way-back machine that allows scientists to peer into the past -- to within a New York nanosecond of the universe's birth!
So after 16 years and $10 billion, the LHC finally got down to the business of making subatomic particle soup -- a milestone for physicists hoping to discover what has come to be known as the "God-particle," or Higgs boson. The NYT calls it a "moment of truth" for those "who have staked their credibility and their careers, not to mention all those billions of dollars, on the conviction that they are within touching distance of fundamental discoveries about the universe."
Pretty exciting. Or scary, depending on your outlook. For American Enterprise Institute economist Kevin Hassett, the LHC provides an occasion to ponder improbable possibilities and perhaps draw up military plans for bombing rogue science experiments in foreign nations.
What worried Hassett was the possibility of the LCH creating a mini-black hole that might quickly grow sufficiently large enough to devour the entire planet. Or as the great philosopher of science Jerry Lee Lewis might say, goodness gracious/great tiny balls of fire!
Hassett sounded the alarm in January. The policy questions raised by LHC, he wrote, "are bigger than the machine."
Like what? Well, like the possibility of "planetary destruction -- whether it's the next physics experiment at even-higher energy or a genetic experiment that might unleash the perfect disease."
Even worse, Hassett cautions, is that "the world's governments have no mechanism to coordinate rational thinking about these risks. If the U.S. wanted to stop the LHC experiment, it would have no recourse short of military action."
First came the war on evolution, then the war on climate science. Do we now have a war on physics -- a new front in the "culture wars?"
Fellow "dismal science" practitioner Brad De Long thinks so, lobbing this volley at Hassett from his blog:
"I know that the American Enterprise Institute is not shamed by anything, but even an organization that is not shamed by anything should be ashamed of this....Leon Lederman named the hypothesized Higgs boson the ‘God particle' as a joke, because its effects were everywhere yet nobody had ever seen it in the flesh -- not because it was in any way powerful or dangerous or numinous or terrifying. It saddens me to think of the physicists who are going to have to waste their time dealing with this..."
How do we non-specialists choose a side? Bertrand Russell was right. "Clearly, if you are going to believe anything outside of your own experience, you should have some reason for believing it. Usually the reason is authority...but we all know how often authority has been proved mistaken." And no less an authority than Stephen Hawking calculates the earth-destroying probabilities of man-made mini black holes to be far less worrisome than the man-made effects of climate change.
Speaking at the Royal Society in London, Hawking said: "we have concluded the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons."
But about the LHC, Hawking wrote: "some have asked if turning on the LHC could produce some disastrous, unexpected result. Indeed, some theories of spacetime suggest the particle collisions might create mini black holes. If that happened, I have proposed that these black holes would radiate particles and disappear. If we saw this at the LHC, it would open up a new area of physics, and I might even win a Nobel prize. But I'm not holding my breath."
And I won't hold my breath waiting for this battle to become a war. Conservatives have their hands full fighting "junk" science, battling both climate and evolutionary science while defending an animal faith in economic policies rooted in social Darwinism.
I'm riding with Hawking on this one, despite having been imbued with an end-of-the-world vision that bears a striking resemblance to Hawking's description of death by black hole ("In those days,...the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of the heaven shall fall...). Besides, Hassett is the guy who made a name for himself in 1999 by wrongly predicting the stock market would be at 36,000 by now.
If Hawking's authority is "proved mistaken," then maybe we can start talking about getting those military plans in order. It's not like we won't have time. Circling a gravity-clogged drain of a black hole, space-time slows way down, such that a second "would be spread out over an infinite period of time" -- even as we "pass the point of no return without noticing it."
If there's anything scary about the LHC, it's what it says about the state of physics in the U.S. Buried in the NYT report, it's noted that the LHC start-up "cements a shift in the balance of physics power away from American dominance that began in 1993, when Congress canceled the Superconducting Supercollider, a monster machine under construction in Waxahachie, Tex."