World to End Today; Poor Hardest Hit

The LHC can't destroy the world, Hillary hasn't been president yet!

If you are reading this article, then to all of our relief, at least the first half of the headline was wrong: the world did not, in fact, end today, at least not the part of it occupied by you.

According to some members of the scientific and pseudoscientific community, though, that's not for lack of trying.  Today marks the first time that Europe's newest big-science toy, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), is turned on.

Fourteen years in the making, the most expensive scientific device in human history (as well as, it is said, the largest engineering project ever) is advertised as being able to disclose the secrets of Life, the Universe, and Everything - or, at least, where we all came from.  Basically a giant particle accelerator, the LHC accelerates particles to such tremendous speeds and collides them with such mammoth amounts of energy as to approach the conditions at the time of the Big Bang.

As its name would imply, the Big Bang was reputedly both big, and a bang.  The "Big Bang" theory is believed so strongly by the physics community that nobody dares question it - your peers will shut off your funding if you aren't sufficiently enthusiastic about the Big Bang.

Mere tolerance isn't enough you've got to be really behind the Big Bang to get any funding at all; no diversity here!  Physicists are so together on the Big Bang that they were able to get the taxpayers to pay billions to build a machine to make a mini Big Bang.

One wonders whether it's entirely a good idea to have a Big Bang - even a mini big bang - in such an attractive part of the world as the Franco-Swiss border, where the LHC has its home.  There are quite a few places where a smallish Big Bang would be just what the doctor ordered; alas, nobody was willing to invest 14 years and 8 billion bucks in any of those places, at least not so far.

This isn't, of course, the first time the End of the World has been predicted; the immortal Tom Lehrer wrote a celebratory song, "We will all go together when we go."  He also predicted the New York Times headline on that day of ill fortune - "World Ends Today; Women, Minorities Hardest Hit."  There aren't enough minorities in Switzerland (by the American definition, anyway) to populate a headline, though, so we had to be content with sympathizing with the poor.

Assuming that the LHC does not, in fact, create an actual Big Bang (in which case we'd never know about it) or an artificial black hole (in which case you'll want to closely examine your Swiss cheese) there are some thoughts that the secrets revealed may include how to make a fusion power plant.  That would be convenient; there's never been a better time to unveil an unlimited supply of clean electricity.

The odds are we won't be that lucky anytime soon.  Fusion power has been "20 years away" for the last 50 years; but never mind, the physicists wanted a new toy and now they have one.

Which leads to the second half of our headline.  The LHC cost $8 billion to construct, and that doesn't include paying for police protection for the scientists who have received death threats from people who think that mad scientists are secretly out to destroy us all.  We are deeply relieved to note that, unlike almost everything else we come across, it was not primarily paid for from Your Tax Dollars; no, it was paid for mostly by the tax euros of our friends across the pond.

This is all very well; but was there nothing more useful that could have been done with their $8 billion?  Perhaps improving education systems?  Or even, God forbid, lowering the egregious tax rates endemic to Europe?

Science is good.  Even pure science, which does not necessarily lead immediately to marketable technology, is worth doing because the deeper understanding it provides will eventually lead to practical improvements in the lives of normal people.

But as we've seen many times before, government generally does an execrable job of picking where to spend research dollars.  At its best, politics distorts what research gets done; at its worst, it forces the truths found by the research to be concealed by the researcher, for fear that his grant will be canceled.  The most successful long-term forays by the government into science generally take the form of prizes, not fully-funded specific programs.

Well, for once the long suffering taxpayers of the United States get a free ride on this one: we don't have to pay for it, but as fellow human beings, we'll surely benefit from whatever discoveries result.  It's the poor of Europe that can carry the can this time.

That is, if we aren't all instantly annihilated by the second Big Bang or sucked into a black hole.  But every cloud has its silver lining: at least that way we wouldn't actually have to choose one of the unpalatable choices on our November ballot.

And that, if anything, is the strongest proof that the LHC won't destroy us after all: no force of nature, not even the End of the World, can stop Hillary in 2012.  No matter what might happen, she can only be merely inconvenienced.

It's enough to make you hope the worriers are right.  Scotty - or, in this case, Jacques - give me more power!

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
Hilarious! Ha! I love the sarcasm. I think big research projects are useful but only where they are funded by businesses hoping for return on investment. As you say, I'm just glad it's not MY dollars this time!
September 10, 2008 9:29 AM
Forbes has a somewhat different spin on the HCL:

Jonathan Fahey Physicists turn on the world's biggest science experiment, in hopes of finding the ''god particle.''
September 10, 2008 1:27 PM
All they ran today was a beam test; it involved none of the conditions that could theoretically give rise to a black hole (which instantly evaporates anyways). Where are you pulling this Big Bang nonsense from anyways? The key word with the LHC is "conditions." It's recreating the conditions present at the start of the universe, NOT recreating the start of the universe itself. We hardly have a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that kind of energy (or technology).

Chances are the LHC will provide useful evidence of the Higgs boson, dark matter, extra dimensions, etc, making it worth every single penny. It will still be a success even if it doesn't confirm the standard model; there's nothing like a good shake-up in physical theory to advance technology.

Cute article. If science isn't frightening the masses, then we're simply not doing it correctly ;)
September 10, 2008 2:16 PM
This is a irrelevant point, but I found it comical that the block ad to the right of your article was for "The God Who Wasn't There" movie which is a hatchet job documentary by atheists. Why are you running that sponsor on a story like this? I can see a hilarious connection: the LHC might prove the Big Bang theory which helps prove God doesn't exist. Was that your intent?
September 10, 2008 2:48 PM
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September 10, 2008 2:53 PM
CNET has another take:

But this Large Hadron Collider experiment, in which particles are breaking the speed limit somewhere beneath the French/Swiss border and then crashing into each other like teenage drunks in fairground bumper cars scares the semi-comatose bejaysus out of me.

These scientists claim to know what they are doing. But scientists always claim to know what they are doing. Then they discover, while doing the thing that they claim to know they are doing, that they are doing something entirely different.

Is any government monitoring these people? What if the Alps are suddenly sent into orbit by two particularly control-free particles and land square on top of, I don't know, Cleveland?

September 10, 2008 11:52 PM
CNET's reporting is exactly the kind of irrational scaremongering that the blogs are doing. The Alps are mountains which are nothing more than big dirt clods. If they were blown upwards, they would not stay as one cohesive clump that would drop down somewhere else. They would explode sending dust, ash and light sand raining through the atmosphere. The power to move them at all would have to be so great it would easily break them apart into a bazillion pieces. This scaremongering is getting sillier and sillier with each article.
September 11, 2008 7:48 AM
First, the LHC poses a mind-bogglingly small threat to the Earth. The experiments it will be performing are akin to the cosmic ray collisions that have occurred over one million times before on Earth itself and occur (we think) about 10 million times per second in the universe at large. The LHC is indeed experimental, but that does not mean that it is unreasonable to assign bounds to the probability of certain outcomes. Out of approximately 4.57 * 10^24 such collisions that have occurred to date, each has failed to end the universe.

Secondly, while wasteful in this particular case, the LHC is considered by many in the field to be highly likely to discover the Higgs Boson and will very likely be able to demonstrate the existence of any "small" (tightly-coiled might be a better turn of phrase) dimensions such as those posited by many string theorists. Either one of these discoveries would put us well on our way to a Grand Unified Theory of Physics the enormity of which would be felt for generations to come; not just for its scientific beauty, but for its applications to industry and the amelioration of the human condition.

I'm certain that there has been absolutely astronomical waste associated with all the EU bureaucratic overhead involved in getting the LHC up and running, but only governments have the resources to throw at projects like this where the increase in human understanding will be more immediate than the material benefits to follow. Could the money have been spent in a different way? Of course, but simply throwing money at problems tends to create enormous, parasitic bureaucracies which undermine the speed and efficacy of the efforts even as they siphon off cash to power their own operations.

There is a fine line to tread between investing in conventional capital such as infrastructure or educated citizens and investing in the kinds of intellectual (perhaps philosophical is a better word) capital which lay the groundwork for even greater standards of living in the longer term. It may well be that the various administrators of Europe have chosen incorrectly in this case, but it was not so obviously poor a decision as you seem to suggest.
October 26, 2008 4:44 PM
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