Science on trial
- October 26, 2012 12:53 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks
Last week, a high court in Germany dismissed a lawsuit against the Large Hadron Collider, charging that it could create a mini black hole that could destroy the Earth.
The case was thrown out of court for lack of evidence, but it demonstrates how a public misunderstanding of science, combined with fear and paranoia, can distort the true value of the science itself.
The collider, the most powerful in the world, is indeed designed to create exotic particles, such as the recently discovered Higgs Boson. These particles are believed to have been produced during the first moments of the Big Bang, when the universe was so hot and dense, our current laws of physics don't apply.
This international effort is an attempt to understand the most fundamental question, "How did the universe begin?"
It takes so much energy to recreate those conditions today that the particles can only exist for a few trillionths of a second. They cannot survive in our current cold and spread-out universe any more than hot steam can exist in a freezer for very long.
So, even if a mini black hole were created, which would be very interesting from a scientific perspective, none of the scientists is worried it will swallow the Earth, because it could only survive within the collider beam and only do so for an extremely brief period. Unlike in Hollywood movies, it will not become a monstrous blob that escapes from the lab and wreaks havoc on the world.
All of this was explained in a safety report from the LHC, and it was that evidence the court decided was strong enough to refute the lawsuit.
But why was so much time and money spent tying up the justice system for something based on fear and bad science?
It seems that scientific mis-information has a better way of reaching the public than real science, especially this year, when doomsday forecasters are predicting the end of the world (again) on December 12th, when the Mayan Calendar overturns.
Apparently, the Large Hadron Collider will contribute to that as well. If it doesn't create an earth-consuming black hole, it might make a hypothetical particle called a strangelet that will trigger earthquakes.
Strangelets are proposed as unusual combinations of up, down, and strange quarks, which would form "strange matter" that would destroy ordinary matter.
Again, scientists at the collider are hoping to determine if these particles could even exist, and if they do, they too would be extremely unstable and short-lived on Earth. But they could provide insight into some of the more bizarre objects in the universe, such as super-dense neutron stars or hypothetical quark stars, which would be made entirely out of strange matter. Perhaps they are what mysterious dark matter is made of.
This is all basic science, asking the most fundamental questions about the world around us. But these strange concepts seem closer to science fiction and, indeed, these Earth-consuming scenarios have been represented in books and movies.
Before we waste court time trying to stop science we don't understand, scientists need to do a better job of educating the public and the public needs to do a better job of telling the difference between real science and scare mongering.
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