Why We Should All Stop Worrying and Love the Large Hadron Collider


The LHC uses powerful magnets to accelerate beams of protons around a 27 km circular tunnel. (Mona Schweizer/Courtesy of Cern)

Published: October 2, 2008

It is the biggest science experiment in history. Infinitesimal particles will be driven to astounding velocities and smashed into each other, releasing energies so intense and yet so fleeting. In these little Big Bangs, researchers hope to catch glimpses of ever more ephemeral particles and from their properties deduce the conditions that gripped the origin of our universe and the secret workings of reality. Yet, in the days and weeks leading up to this month’s commissioning and first tentative test firings of European Nuclear Research Organization CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC)—the largest, highest-energy particle accelerator in the world—the scientists and engineers laboring to complete the machine received not only gratitude and praise for their hard work, but also angry letters, tearful telephone calls and even death threats—all from those who believed or feared that experiments with the machine would destroy the world.

These fearful people believed that high energy collisions might produce miniature black holes that would consume the world or strangelets, a hypothetical kind of matter dangerously more stable than our own nuclei. These worries were, to say the least, unfounded. The collisions that will be produced by the LHC are not unusual in the universe; cosmic rays of equal energies have battered our planet without incident since its conception. The micro-black holes that might be created are far more benign than those studied by astrophysicists, collapsed stars with titanic, even galaxy-bending gravity. The strangelet scenario, like Kurt Vonnegut’s ice-nine, has a sort of dark fascination to it, but the truth is strangelets only arise and survive in low energy environments—exactly the opposite of those inside the reactions of the LHC. All these misconceptions were debunked in reports on the collider’s safety, but the fear-mongers continued unfazed. The rumors burnt on, alit with the grim heat of end-of-the-world fanaticism.

So who were these people that threatened CERN’s employees, I wondered, and how could they so readily believe this myth of mad scientists and doomsday machines? Some saw dark conspiracies behind CERN’s logo, finding a Biblical 666 in its overlapping lines and circles. A few were scientists themselves, though they were not trained in the relevant discipline, particle physics. A German biochemist sued for a hold on the project in the European Court of Human Rights, and here in the States, a botanist filed a similar suit against CERN’s American collaborators. But I suspect that most were simply concerned individuals that heard the term “black hole” and, perhaps not entirely unreasonably, became fearful for their lives and their families.

I know some of these concerned individuals. Acquaintances of mine held a (somewhat anti-climactic) doomsday party on the eve of the machine’s first collisions. Another friend practically quivered with worry and anger. I explained that there was no danger, and she hugged me with relief. Still I was shocked at how easily she had been willing to believe that science was reckless, dangerous and willing to jeopardize the world.

What is behind this whole silly misunderstanding? Surely the sensational nature of our modern media deserves some of the blame; headlines grasped eagerly at rumors of the fantastic and the catastrophic, but the definitive, peer-reviewed scientific reports that affirmed the LHC’s safety were buried in the fine print. We might also examine the occasionally confused relationship between scientists and the public. It is the nature of scientific thought to acknowledge vanishingly small possibilities long after a layman’s “common sense” would have dismissed them as impossible. When the public asked, “Is the LHC a danger to the world?” the scientists waffled in their precision. This was not comforting to people who wanted a simple “no,” no matter how low the probabilities mentioned were. Behind all this, however, there is perhaps a more telling cause. The truth is that, despite all it has given us—the technology and the understanding—people don’t trust science.

“We aren’t ready,” my worried friend had argued. “We aren’t mature enough yet to handle this sort of technology. Science should just stop and wait until humanity’s wisdom and judgement catches up.” In a way, this is a tempting thought: stop all the daily discoveries, the innovations, the inventions, the new products and devices, everything that we struggle every day to keep up with and understand, everything that gives the modern world this constant sinking feeling that the ground beneath us is crumbling, leaving us without sure purchase—stop all of it, and just catch our breath, regroup, work out our differences and figure out just where we want to go from here.

But human thought doesn’t work like that. Wisdom and judgement don’t develop independently of science. Throughout history, discoveries about the natural world have lead to great revolutions in philosophical thought, and it has been science that has shown us the dangerous implications of a myriad of human activities, from smoking cigarettes to burning fossil fuels. It is not reckless curiosity that has driven scientific advancement, but rather the need for solutions to practical dilemmas that cause human suffering. Whatever confusion we feel over the accelerating pace of modern life, turning our backs on the very instincts that we use to solve problems will not give us the reconciliation we crave.

It is a compelling image, those crashing protons and giant magnets, almost the stuff of science fiction. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the biggest science experiment in history elicited equally grandiose responses, however misguided. These times feel drastic, and we like the thought of drastic measures. But the mad scientist with his doomsday machine—these are fictions of our fear. And as a great man once said, “We have nothing to fear but…”