Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Hole In None

Good news! According to the Daily Mail, physicists near Geneva are not at risk of sucking the Earth into a black hole when they try to reproduce a mini version of the Big Bang.

I've no doubt this announcement will come as a very great relief to everyone who's been following the Large Hadron Collider story for months, waiting in fear and dread, dying to know if we're all going to die weirdly in the name of pure research.

And, for those intellectual microbes who've never heard of the LHC, and have no idea what it does, where it is or why it's there, the news will probably be even more Earth shattering - though not as Earth shattering as the black hole would have been.

Showers of toast and coffee are probably erupting onto breakfast tables all over England as Daily Mail readers get to grips with the idea that those damn Europeans are messing around with some really, REALLY big science - and didn't even bother to ask Middle England for permission first!

It's the sort of thing that spawns letters to the Editor, for sure. But, apart from sneering at those who have never, until today, even considered the possibility that some mad scientist somewhere might actually cause the entire planet to fall into a black hole, there is a serious point to this rant.

Although the LHC has been declared safe - though how anyone can say that for sure beats me - it's fairly obvious that some other experiment, on a similar or larger scale, could, theoretically, cause some very nasty side effects. The question is, what should we do about it?

In an ideal world, the boffins in question would make some kind of announcement in the more respectable media - tabloids of all kinds could be ignored, since the chances of their readers actually understanding the announcement, or the explanation of same, are vanishingly small - thereby giving us a chance to comment, object, or vacate the planet.

In reality, though, that's not likely to happen. Commercial pressures, academic competition and the realisation that even broadsheet readers struggle to appreciate the finer points of raw, cutting edge research, will encourage secrecy. Enraged screams of "You want to do WHAT to the planet??" make it so hard to concentrate, and there's very little point in trying to explain things anyway - Joe Public has an infuriating habit of getting hold of half an idea (usually the wrong half) and then incorrectly applying it to something totally unrelated.

And so the opportunity for an open and honest exchange of ideas, leading to rapid advances in the field(s) under investigation, will be lost for the age old reason that folks who don't understand the science will do their level best to prevent anyone else from understanding it either. Of necessity, research will go underground, or, at least, will continue not to be mainstream news, until the day that some oddball experiment really does cause the Earth to undergo a sudden, unanticipated total existence malfunction.

When it happens it will be quick, and there will be very little chance for enraged Luddites to write to their local papers. But they might, if they are lucky, have time to wonder whether this might have been avoided if only they'd bothered to pay attention in GCSE Science.

Billy Seggars.

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