July 10, 2008

God. By whatever signs or symbols you ascribe to the deity. This machine, the supercollider, will take us as close as humanly possible to his or her greatest creation, genesis. This is a genesis machine, designed to study the greatest event in all history: the birth of the universe.
- Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics, City University of New York


I live in a world where things make sense, where all events can be understood. We all could live in such a world were we but willing to see our individual selves without bias -- for to understand a thing is also to accept its potential within ourselves. One cannot understand, from outside.

Knowing that a potential exists does not mandate acting upon it, any more than understanding a pattern of events in itself frees us from that pattern. The pattern is predictive, but the pattern can also be altered. Understanding is independent both of personal justification and personal choice.

However, increasingly I find that what passes for seeking understanding in this world is actually camouflaged justification. Even in the hard sciences, the goal now seems to be to show why this or that observed event does or does not have relevance to a particular outcome, and thus how it supports or opposes a particular policy direction; while other research often tries to demonstrate why a particular current situation could not have been predicted, based on the knowledge at hand at the time. One of my personal favourites is the determined application of hindsight bias to negate alternate points of view, as quoted in the Shankar Vedantam reference in the Wikipedia article on the subject. Here, a purported scientific understanding and explanation of the liberal mind actually serves to dismiss it.

Had we perfect understanding, we would not need history -- but as it is we do need documentation fixed in time to show us a reflection of who we were at that time. Unfortunately for Vedantam's application of hindsight bias, the historical record does show that at least some people predicted the current situation with almost complete accuracy ... and it also shows how they were villified for it. The average and even not-so-average person does not want to know, let alone to understand, but simply wants their own beliefs reinforced, to justify their own determined courses of action.
Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on.
- LHC project leader Lyn Evans
For some time now I have been following the controversy surrounding the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which will be seven times more powerful than its equivalent at Fermilab. The newest headlines all state categorically (and in almost identical wording) that there is no significant associated danger, that the facility has been deemed safe, and especially that the research for which this super collider is designed won't destroy the earth after all.

Full stop. Destroy the earth?

Seems there is a small but real chance that the facility's energies will be capable of creating a low-velocity micro black hole, which could well be captured by the earth's gravity and trapped within the earth itself. It could also produce the theoretical particles known as strangelets, speculated to be among the major components of the universe's "dark matter".

Interestingly, a major argument by CERN scientists concerning the safety of possibly creating strangelets is that strangelets have never been proven to exist. (But is not trying to obtain such proof part of the purpose of the facility?) Even if the LHC were to produce strangelets, it is argued that they would quickly break down.

But this assumption is outside known science. The truth is that no one knows how stable or unstable new strangelets would be. Known particles which incorporate strange quarks, such as the lambda particle, are always unstable because the strange quark is heavier than the others, so the strangeness is quickly lost as the strange quark decays into up and down quarks. However, the strange matter hypothesis suggests that particles with a larger number of quarks, divided more or less equally among the various types, may not decay (due to the Pauli exclusion principle). Another unknown of strange matter is surface tension. If it turns out to be above a critical threshold, the bigger the strangelet, the more stable it will be ... and it just might have the ability to convert other forms of matter as well.

The second major argument supporting the facility is that
The LHC is only going to reproduce what nature does every second, what it has been doing for billions of years.
- John Ellis, CERN
Cosmic rays strike the earth unceasingly, and some of these collisions probably produce micro black holes, strange creations which give us a glimpse of the beginnings of our universe. However, the velocities of these naturally-produced micro black holes would be far beyond those needed to escape the earth's gravitational field. Out they go, into space, where they will be rather less a problem to us than the known, much larger black holes in Cygnus and at the heart of our solar system. Quite probably our own sun will go nova before any of them become an issue.

In contrast, any micro black hole produced in a facility within our current capacity -- and the most recent report has confirmed that such black holes could be created by the LHC -- won't be travelling as fast, and thus has a fairly high chance of being captured by the earth. In this case, if the black hole is stable enough, it would oscillate a few times all the way through the earth and back, eating up tiny amounts of matter each time, until eventually it came to rest somewhere near the core. The problem is not what is absorbed into the black hole during those original oscillations, not any shift in gravity, but that since it would remain within the earth, it would quietly keep on absorbing matter and growing. For some months we would notice nothing at all. In somewhere between one and four years, the effects would suddenly become noticeable as a serious instability within the earth's core -- after which it would only be a matter of hours before the earth ceases to exist.

Ironically December 21 (or 12, or 23), 2012 marks the predicted end of the fourth cycle, and thus possibly the fourth earth, in the Mayan calendar.
We recall the rates for the collisions of cosmic rays with the Earth, Sun, neutron stars, white dwarfs and other astronomical bodies at energies higher than the LHC. The stability of astronomical bodies indicates that such collisions cannot be dangerous.
- Ellis et al, Review of the Safety of LHC Collisions
I do believe this is an example of the probability fallacy: that if a thing is possible, it must have already happened (and its effects observed). I must admit I was not expecting to run into it in a respected scientific publication. Again, the truth is that what we don't know about the universe far outweighs what we do know. The horizon is wide. We keep discovering new phenomena all the time. Were we just looking in the wrong place before? or maybe the light just had not reached us until then? Even if our sun were suddenly to wink out, we could not know it until eight minutes later.

Yet we are told that "there is no basis for any conceivable threat", which quickly translates into headlines around the world as proving that no threat exists. In fact, a fair number of those stories skate the edge of literal truth, while at the same time doing their best to imply that the LHC would not be able to produce these creations at all:
CERN hopes the report will dispel public fears that the accelerator will produce black holes or hypothetical particles known as strangelets that could destroy the Earth.
- physicsworld.com
The odds of a catastrophic event occurring are said to be 50 million to one (per physicist Martin Rees). But people regularly play lotteries against just such odds. Some even win.
Vizzini: He didn't fall? Inconceivable!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

- The Princess Bride
Perhaps CERN's new superconductor will indeed bring us as close as humanly possible to genesis, the beginning, the mind of God -- but as every walker of the path knows well, to touch the source is to erase the self. Maybe in the end this will turn out to be the only way we, as a species, can finally understand this lesson.


August update:

The subject has also sparked a continuing Wikipedia war. (Links to the relevant Wikipedia pages are buried within the main page linked.) The essence of the dispute is that CERN-linked Wikipedia members have been editing the LHC articles to eliminate any reference to less than complete consensus among the scientific community.

As it stands currently, the article has been split into two pages, the controversy now entirely separated from the original. Any attempt to include peer-reviewed research which does not support unquestionable safety, or indeed any research which questions the basic premises upon which that unquestionable safety is grounded, is continually dismissed as irrelevant at best, fringe at worst. It makes yet another neat piece of circular reasoning: any mention of safety questions cannot be raised because their reasoning is not scientifically supported; while the scientific support cannot be raised because those articles are off-topic to the safety question.

One of the side effects of this determined avoidance is that while the legal action against CERN is mentioned, the reasons for it are not.

The Wikipedia editor who first raised the issue has been threatened with being blocked from future Wikipedia edits due to tendentious editing. Whether or not this charge is appropriate depends entirely on whether the risks posed by the LHC are based on fringe claims or legitimate research. For now he has chosen to back down, hoping for neutral arbitration. So conditioned are we both to deferral to authority and to consensus, I don't know whether he can get it.

September update:

Because he said it better than I could.

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