Monday, March 31, 2008

A little bit of knowledge...or 21st century luddites

So, there is an article in the New York Times that discusses two men filing a lawsuit to stop CERN from operating the Large Hadron Collider:

Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.”


It actually worries me a little bit that this was such a popular article in the New York Times. Dennis Overbye is an excellent science writer, in my opinion, but I do worry a little bit that people who read the article won't understand the infinitesimal possibilities of what Wagner and Sancho are suggesting. Journalists in general tend to give equal weight to opposing viewpoints (and in general I suppose that is sound journalistic principle), but in science journalism, it is often disingenuous to give equal weight to say, the flat earth society against 100% of geologists who can show that the earth is spherical.

As one reads the article, however, it is very clear that Wagner and Sancho are woefully unable to make a cogent argument against the collider. Wagner "studied physics and did cosmic ray research at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a doctorate in law," while Sancho "describes himself as an author and researcher on time theory." I am not suggesting that I understand all the physics or possibilities of what could happen while operating the LHC, but I am comfortable suggesting that Wagner and Sancho certainly don't. They seem a bit like 21st century luddites, scared of the future.

My favorite line of the article is the concluding paragraph, which makes very clear what the reporter Mr. Overbye thinks of the lawsuit,
Dr. Arkani-Hamed said concerning worries about the death of the Earth or universe, “Neither has any merit.” He pointed out that because of the dice-throwing nature of quantum physics, there was some probability of almost anything happening. There is some minuscule probability, he said, “the Large Hadron Collider might make dragons that might eat us up.”

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