Saturday, October 04, 2008


Hadrons and black holes and fear...

...Oh, my!

Everyone’s heard, by now, the fears that operation of the Large Hadron Collider (henceforth, “LHC”) could result in the formation of a black hole that would suck the Earth into oblivion. Everyone knows, by now, that the LHC has been switched on and “the Earth is still here, ha-ha!” And everyone’s seen, by now, the rebuttal that it’s been switched on, but it’s not fully operational yet. The fears are still there that the annihilation of the Earth (and who knows what-all else, but we don’t much care beyond that) still waits for spring, somewhere within 27 kilometres of underground tubes near Geneva.

The other weekend, the radio program Studio 360 (produced by WNYC and distributed by Public Radio International) re-aired a couple of segments from late May. Physicist Tara Shears, a research fellow at the University of Liverpool, took the interviewer on a tour of the LHC. Dr Shears is well used to explaining the LHC to the media, and does her usual wonderful job here.

Next, physicist and writer Janna Levin talked about the LHC and other things, and specifically addressed the question of the fears. About the fears, Dr Levin says this (about 20:35 into the audio), after we heard some related fiction by a novelist:

Kurt Andersen: I want to return now to Janna Levin, an actual scientist. I asked her about the chances that this new gadget might actually create a black hole on Earth.

Janna Levin: Well, it’s interesting, ’cause you can never say “never,” actually, and the best things you can say are that it’s incredibly, ridiculously, extremely unlikely that anything like that can happen. But you have to remember that in these quantum laws it is physically possible for me to pass through that wall without destroying either myself or the wall. And, yet, none of us fear that it’s going to happen, that we’re going to fall through the floor. We all take elevators, and we live our lives all the time, because this probability is so absurdly low that it’s never really going to be observed in our lifetime. But can I say it’s a physical impossibility? I can not.

The fear and hysteria is very interesting, because actually, we have a lot of very dangerous technology that’s very simple, like, you know, fire. And it’s really hard to imagine going through life prohibiting certain advances on the basis of very absurd fear.

KA: No, but apocalypse... I mean, the down side is big!

JL: Yeah, the down side is big. There are particles that are hitting the Earth’s atmosphere right now that have those energies and higher, and there are not little black holes being created in the atmosphere.

As I listened to that, what occurred to me was the difference between the way Dr Levin and scientists in general talk about things, and how religious fundamentalists and other wingnuts do. It’s a difference that makes it difficult for us to understand each other, and difficult for others to sort the arguments out.

Let’s be clear about what Dr Levin is saying: We know that the LHC is not going to destroy the Earth. We know it as surely as we know that we can’t walk through walls, as surely as we know that the Sun will come up tomorrow, as surely as we know which direction a dropped stone will fall. There’s not really any question there. But scientists work with observed and measured data, and hypotheses that explain the data. New data can come along that will change our explanations or reveal new aspects of the world that we previously weren’t aware of.

So we say we can’t be 100% certain. We call things “theories” and “hypotheses”. We say things like, “to the best of our knowledge,” and, “our evidence tells us.”

The religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, have no such doubts. With no observable evidence, guided by a book and belief, they “know”. They are 100% certain.

The scientist will say that the probability that you could walk through a wall safely is minuscule, but it could happen, if the respective atomic particles happened to line up just so. A religious view wouldn’t worry about probabilities or minuscule chance: you could walk through a wall if and only if God wanted you to do it. Simple. Certain. It’s all up to God.

We could dismiss that, but for one thing: most people don’t understand the scientists’ “uncertainty” for what it is. Most people have the same reaction that Kurt Andersen did, when they hear that uncertainty: “But you aren’t sure. What if you’re wrong? The down side is big!”

And it’s that natural reaction that lets the fearmongers get a foothold. “The scientists say the chances are small and we shouldn’t worry, but they don’t know. If they’re wrong, the Earth will be destroyed. We must make them stop this madness!”

As scientists, we have to address this difference in how we talk about things. We have to convey the certainty that we understand in words that our listeners and readers will understand. Gravity will always pull things down. Evolution is true. The LHC will not create an Earth-enveloping black hole. No uncertainty. No probabilities. No theories.

We need to save the “what ifs” and the ultra-remote possibilities for the academic papers.

1 comment:

Upstate said...

But, scientific conclusions ARE always tentative. In the seventies we thought we had the "Big Bang" hypothesis down pat and now we have to explain "Dark Matter" and "Dark Energy." Scientists would have looked pretty foolish if the claimed absolute certainty back then!

And what if the LHC does not produce the Higgs particle? How is absolute certainty going to explain that one away?

I'll tell you a little secret. Religion changes its "certainites" too. Only over a longer time period. Here adultery is treated as an occasion for family counseling, even though it is a violation of one of the commandments and, according to the Bible, deserving of severe punishment. Yet, parts of the Islamic world still consider adultery a reason to condemn and stone the adulterers, especially the woman.

What we need is rigorous honesty from both the scientists (no problem there) and from the fundies and other nut cases (big problem there!).