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World to End Today; Poor Hardest Hit

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

By Hobbes  |  September 10, 2008

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!