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Big bang sparks big reaction

Fabrice Coffini / Pool via AFP - Getty Images
Scientists watch the computers at CERN's control center for the Large Hadron
Collider, near Geneva, during Wednesday's "First Beam" startup.

This week's startup of Europe's Large Hadron Collider didn't generate a big bang or a black hole, but it did generate a big reaction from folks who followed our series on the "Big Bang Machine." More than 40,000 people voiced their opinion by clicking through our unscientific survey or by discussing the issues in online forums.

To my mind, the scariest thing that came up was not the discussion over whether or not the collider might create a cosmic catastrophe (the overwhelming scientific verdict is that it won't), but the mortal fear that the discussion sparked among kids around the world. For those young people - and not-so-young people as well - I have two words of advice, taken straight from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy":

DON'T PANIC!

Ask an expert if you can. Sign a petition if you wish. But don't give in to dark thoughts because some people are talking about microscopic black holes, strangelets or other high-energy hobgoblins. Remember, history is filled with other way-out doomsday scares ranging from Y2K meltdowns to alien invasions.

This week's startup went as smooth as silk at the CERN particle-physics center near Geneva, but that won't necessarily stop the doomsday talk. Over the next few weeks, the LHC will be building up power and starting collisions, while the legal issues surrounding high-energy physics will be debated in the courts - and that means the worries about the LHC will continue to come up in public forums.

In fact, there may always be a background buzz of subatomic scariness, just as some folks keep insisting that the Face on Mars (or Mermaid on Mars) is an alien artifact. But there are more serious things to worry about, ranging from the monster hurricane slamming the Gulf Coast to the chances of a killer asteroid heading our way (estimated background risk: 1 in 500,000 for any given year).

The online survey we conducted this week is by no means reflective of true public opinion, as we repeatedly remind people. I suspect that a lot of people don't know or don't care about the Large Hadron Collider. Nevertheless, the results indicate that a lot of people know enough not to panic: Just under 60 percent of the responses were clicks of enthusiastic support for the experiment. About 20 percent said they were worried about a cosmic catastrophe, and another 20 percent thought the device was a waste of money.

Here's an annotated sampling of the feedback from readers, starting with some of the messages that sparked the "Don't Panic" advice:

Nicole, 10-year-old 5th grader: "hi mr allan boyle? i seen the ad on msn.com of your science experience collider  and i just wanna say please, please please dont do it! who knows! it might destroy the world.... in only a ten year old girl but im really concered about this. please mr allan boyle, please dont do it! just to be safe. please mr allan. im really scared ... i know i should'nt worry about it but for some reason i do! ... im just in the beggining of grade 5 and i dont know much about science as you would but please mr boyle...... i really enjoy life and i dont want it to end soon because of science. i really LOVE science but please mr allan. im scared ..."

Lauren: "Dont' do it! why risk it. I don't want to die! We still have millions of years to the sun blows up. so why not wait to see what happens then kill us all. i love my life and i dont want to lose it. Please Alan i repeat dont do it. Im just a kid and i have so much more to live for."

Lucy: "i dont wona die im only 12."

William E. Cox, Nidderau, Germany: "If this thing even has a slim chance of causing the havoc that some say it might, would you bet your child's life on it?  Or your children's children?  Build the damned thing on the moon or on another planet and test it there.  We have done enough to start and accelerate the destruction of our planet, why keep taking the risk that we may see Armageddon before the next century is upon us! Think about it!  Seriously!"

Brenda Baldino, Scranton, Pa.: "I am a mother of a 4-year-old boy, John, and a 2-year-old girl, Madison. I read your story pertaining to the Big Bang Machine and I don't mind telling you that I am scared. I scoured your article for rays of hope and I was comforted a little, but not enough to stop me from staring at those little faces on my children as they are sleeping right now and not be petrified for what can happen. Please sir, I need to hear that more scientists than not agree nothing will happen, we will not destroy ourselves. I need to have hope that my children will have children one day. I need to hear of the positive outcomes this will bring the human race."

I told Brenda and the others that the potential risk has been analyzed, and the people who know best about such things have concluded there's no catastrophic risk. ("Are you sure?" Nicole wrote back.) Some correspondents wondered whether the atom-smasher might set off earthquakes or other dangerous rumblings:

Paul A. Nadeau: "... Given the environment of whether the particle accelerator resides, it will be 'interesting' to see if the slightest vibrations resound through the rocky earth of Switzerland resulting in an abnormally high season of avalanches this winter given the scientific studies on how the slight vibration can set off the most destructive forces in a mountainous region.  It would be one place or geographical area I would not seek to vacation around knowing with those scientists are doing below the surface of the earth in the region."

I'm not aware of any evidence that the collider, which was built under 330 feet (100 meters) of rock, will have any substantial seismic effect on the surrounding countryside. In fact, scientists have been studying the effect that natural ground motion might have on the collider's experiments (see page 265 of this study). That leads me to suspect that the LHC can't be blamed for earthquakes and avalanches.

One student had this question about the temperatures achieved by LHC collisions:

Ryan Curry, Tupelo Middle School: "What is inside the LHC that prevents it from melting once the temperature has reached 10,000 times hotter than the sun's core? I would figure anything would be vaporized at that point. What holds it together? (Asbestos? lol!)"

The collisions take place in a vacuum that is more empty than outer space, and the high temperatures occur in a vanishingly small subatomic volume. In a flash, all that energy is converted back into decay particles. Yes, there is heat and radiation, but nothing the LHC's supercooled system of vacuum pipes and magnets can't handle.

Some correspondents weren't at all happy about the way I handled the doomsday question in Tuesday's installment. Here's a sampling:

Jeff Krantz: "Seriously!?  How can any self-respecting 'science editor' live with himself after posting a story with the headline about black holes consuming the earth.  I just can't even express my frustration over this.  I wish I could never read your site again. Inciting public panic against science is one of the worst things someone in your position could do.  Maybe if you use that article to get people into science more it would be worth it, but I highly doubt it.  You're just going to get people more anti-science than there already are."

Some of the people concerned about the LHC touched upon their scientific background:

Patrick: You start off with [the question] 'will the newest supercollider save or destroy the Earth,' of which both scenarios have probabilities of occurring. However, the most likely scenario is that academic understanding is advanced to some level that will be meaningless in the grand scheme. I am a trained research scientist in molecular genetics and believe that academic knowledge should be expanded upon. However, I also, like most people believe that governments are failing in their defined roles that people gave up personal freedoms to form and participate in. For example, education, road, bridge, water reserves, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, etc., in the U.S. are beyond disrepair. Governments run by special interest groups and flashy election issue-driven topics are the driving force behind our resources.

"Finally, you touch on another point in the article that I have always found disturbing about how science works - we can do this, so let's. Lawyers are trying to stop this supercollider because of the slim chances of safety issues, but they are doing it after how many billions of dollars of resources have been invested? To me the likelihood of an adverse event occuring must be weighed in conjunction with the severity of the potential event. I recall a little discussion around this when this project started, but not much.

"Issues that affect the entire planet should err on the safe side, at least until we have another planet to go to. I applied this logic to global warming as well to try to convince skeptics who [think] there is no problem instead of trying to wade through the science to determine the actual information, which has been definitive for several years now. I am not saying we should ban supercollider work or cloning, or stem cell research or genetic modified plants and animals or ... I think that more education, knowledge and thought should go into the flow chart. Think first then ..."

Other scientists took umbrage at the religious reference that I worked into the first article in the series. Here's an example:

Nathan Epler, Ph.D., principal hydrogeologist: "I know I am being oversensitive, and I am not an atheist, but why couldn't you leave God out of your article? To me, as a scientist, 'God' represents what we - as a primitive species (only a few thousand years removed from stone tools) - don't know about the universe and nature of existence. Which is, to say the least, a whole lot (i.e., we don't know a whole lot). The more I learn, the closer to the divine I feel. To most other people, unfortunately, 'God' represents what they do know. They are right and everyone who doesn't agree with them is wrong (and going to hell, by the way). So, could you leave God out of it when you are talking about science? It just muddies the message."

Thursday's installment focused on the comparative standing of America and Europe in the scientific world - and drew a wide spectrum of feedback. One correspondent stuck up for the red, white and blue in what some might see as politically incorrect terms:

Paul Hernandez: "The U.S. has contributed over $500 million to the collider, which actually gives us part ownership as I see it. The U.S. is in effect all of NATO, and since so much of our manpower and treasure goes to protect the free world, it sure seems to free up plenty of money for those gutless, good-for-nothing, who-needs-enemies-with-allies-like-these, no-armies-to-speak-of, scum-sucking Europeans to use for research. The title to your article seems to want to ignore that and give Europe something it does not deserve. Why do you need to make scientific endeavors a competition in the first place. You should know better."

Putting aside the tough talk, some Europeans might agree that too much is made of the competitive aspect. After Wednesday's startup, CERN Director General Robert Aymar said Europe may have displaced America as the locale for the world's largest particle collider, but he also noted that collaboration always follows competition. Big Science has become bigger than any one country.

Nevertheless, some correspondents recalled the aborted effort to build the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas during the '90s - a machine that would have been bigger than the LHC:

Cynthia: "So now it's happening.  I worked on the Superconducting Super Collider with the most talented physicists in the world.  It was canceled, and hundreds of scientists were left without the tenured positions they gave up to join the Collider.  The SSCL was looking at a $10 billion budget, yet the Congress canceled it with a vote on, ironically enough, my birthday.  The U.S. gave funds for the LHC after the SSCL was canceled.

"None of us was from Waxahachie, Texas, so we formed a 'family' of our own at the SSCL. Everyone worked very hard, long into the night.  We had the technology and the brain power to build it, but it was evidently wrong time, wrong country.  I sat in congressional hearings where opinions were read from other U.S. scientists who said it wasn't necessary and little benefit would come from building it.  If you have ever been involved in government budgets, you know they get pretty political.  If other scientists had their budgets decreased due to the collider, they weren't going to support building it.

"The 'story' is that Ann Richards was offered either NASA or the collider for funding by Bill Clinton.  She chose NASA, for obvious reasons:  Texas has much more of its economy built around NASA.  But did it serve the best interests of scientific research?  George Bush wants to go back to the moon, but we've been there, done that.

"If I sound bitter, I am.  The 'it coulda been us' that I feel whenever I hear about the LHC won't go away.  The research facilities for our colleges and universities that were to be a part of the SSCL didn't happen.  People were displaced from homesteads they held for generations and the equipment was sold or given away at bargain prices.  Funny, all the laboratories wanted our equipment when we were canceled. 

"Maybe it would be valuable to follow up with some of the senior scientists at the SSCL - but don't expect those scientists at U.S. colleges and universities to criticize it - it's just not politically correct."

On the Newsvine discussion site, another physicist looked backward - and forward:

"I was in graduate school (in physics) when the SSC was cancelled. Since there was already a substantial oversupply of Ph.D. physicists at the time, the cancellation gave further impetus to a movement that was already under way from pure science to greater emphasis on technology. After the collapse of the telecommunications boom, followed in rapid succession by 9/11/01, the focus switched almost entirely to military and security-related technologies. So that is one area in which the U.S. is probably still in the lead. It reminds me of how some people used to describe the Soviet Union: 'a third-world country with first-world weapons.'"

And here's another Newsvine comment, this time from an immigrant:

"As an outsider (immigrant) living in the United States, I can see thing the most Americans fail to recognize - that the U.S. is losing its edge to focused, hungrier and driven people from other countries. The U.S. of A. has immense potential and it could all be lost if the people here continue to act like sheep and be blind to what is happening around them.

"I was an average student in my country and had decent opportunities back home, but when I moved to the U.S., I was ahead of the crowd by a good margin. In the companies I have worked (mostly high-tech), there are very smart people at the top but the fresh talent pool is quite lacking in basic skills (science, math, etc.) and we have had to look outside the country for average talent. If this continues to be the trend, the U.S. will find itself sooner in the back seat, watching the rest of the world in control of science and engineering."

What do you think? Feel free to add your comments about the Big Bang Machine - or the bigger implications.

Past chapters in the atom-smasher saga:

  • Sept. 10, 2006: Subatomic scare tactics
  • June 21, 2007: Toiling in the fields of physics
  • March 27, 2008: Doomsday fears spark lawsuit
  • May 20: Big-bang battle plan set
  • May 30: Doomsday debate update
  • June 16: Doomsday still under debate
  • June 20: Report rules out subatomic doomsday
  • June 24: Doomsday lawsuit dissed
  • June 25: Black holes for beginners
  • July 2: The benefits of black holes
  • Aug. 4: Science's summer blockbuster
  • Aug. 7: Big day set for big-bang machine
  • Aug. 19: Twists in the doomsday debate
  • Aug. 25: Final countdown for collider
  • Aug. 30: Courts weigh doomsday claims
  • Sept. 4: Black holes for kids
  • Sept. 5: Subatomic safety revisited
  • Sept. 8: Totally fictional doomsdays
  • Sept. 10: International man of mysteries
  • Sept. 11: Big bang on the Web
  • ... And our special report on "The Big Bang Machine"