Bust Open That Black Hole! April 3, 2008Posted by gordonwatts in physics life, politics, press, science.
I really didn’t want to say something about this article. Actually, at first I wondered if it was just an excuse to show a truly awesome picture I wasn’t going to write anything. But then it started showing up on tech blogs, it rose to near the top of the New York Time’s most emailed articles. And non-physics friends of mine started asking what I thought about it. And then I saw some of the comments left on the article at the Herald Tribune’s version of the article (read them – it is worth it). I agree with Peter Woit: “it’s unclear why the story deserves any attention” However, I can hold out only so long.
Here is what I think: this article has the legs for reasons similar to why ID and Creationists are able to push the “evolution is only a theory” so effectively.
If you don’t have time to read the article: Wagner (ex physics researcher, lives in Hawaii) and Sancho (author, researcher on time theory (!?), lives somewhere in Spain) are suing Fermilab, the Department of Energy, and CERN to prevent the LHC from being turned on. Their’s is a doomsday worry: a small black hole or something similar will be created in the center of one of the detectors and will quickly expand to eat up the whole universe. Including us. I actually think that I’ve seen Wagner. One day, when I was a graduate student at Fermilab, I remember seeing a collection of people protesting outside the Batavia gate. I didn’t stop, but some friends did. It was someone from Hawaii who was worried we were going to end the universe. I don’t remember the name, but I suspect it was Wagner.
Now, in the evolution and creationism debate we scientist types call evolution a theory. In science it doesn’t get much more iron clad than that – pretty much the top of the heap. Note that we very carefully do not call it a fact. The reason is that science is always looking to improve the answers. We may have a model that fits all of our observations – but that isn’t to say that we’ve not missed something thus will need to extend the model or theory at a later time to account for new observations. Scientists are very careful about declaring the limits of their knowledge, and are very reluctant to go out on a limb and make a statement for which they do not have supporting evidence. That is part of the reason why we don’t call evolution a fact.
Now, lets go back to the article. There are lots of papers talking about mini-black holes and their possible production at the LHC. So far no one has seen any evidence of a black hole generated at any of the operating accelerators. But can you get any scientist to declare: “Absolutely, under no circumstances, ever will there be a black hold like this produced.”? I doubt it. If you asked a particle physicsts if they were worried about it – I don’t know of any that would be. Most would love to be at CERN, in fact, when the LHC starts up. I’d love to be there, but I may be teaching instead.
There is another aspect in this – risk evaluation. For example, it is much more dangerous to drive in your car than fly in an airplane. That is the raw science (statistics, whatever) of it. Yet we fear flying. When it comes to something like this how do you evaluate the risk? There is no way a non-scientist can do it themselves. The more science literacy there is the better people will understand the language that scientists use, but… And there is no way you would want to limit scientific endeavors and research to the list of topics that the non-scientist can easily understand! Ahhh… outreach!
Obligatory joke: fear not; us particle physicists will be first to pay if we’re wrong. ;-)
But you have to admit — that is one amazing picture of CMS! These large detectors are stunning. I think someone should gather up the copyrights for some of these pictures and make a lulu.com book or something like that.