When worlds collide
[This is the pre-edited version of my
latest Muse article for Nature News.]
Worries about an apocalypse unleashed by particle accelerators are not new. They have their source in old myths, which are hard to dispel.
When physicists dismiss as a myth the charge that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will trigger a process that might destroy the world, they are closer to the truth that they realise. In common parlance a myth has come to denote a story that isn’t true, but in fact it is a story that is psychologically true. A real myth is not a false story but an archetypal one. And the archetype for this current bout of scare stories is obvious: the Faust myth, in which an hubristic individual unleashes forces he or she cannot control.
The LHC is due to be switched on in July at CERN, the European centre for particle physics near Geneva. But some fear that the energies released by colliding subatomic particles will produce miniature black holes that will engulf the world. Walter Wagner, a resident of Hawaii, has even filed a lawsuit to prevent the experiments.
As high-energy physicist Joseph Kapusta points out in a new preprint , such dire forebodings have accompanied the advent of other particle accelerators in the past, including the Bevalac in California and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) on Long Island. In the latter case, newspapers seized on the notion of an apocalyptic event – the UK’s Sunday Times ran a story under the headline ‘The final experiment?’
The Bevalac, an amalgamation of two existing accelerators at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, was created in the 1970s to investigate extremely dense states of nuclear matter – stuff made from the compact nuclei of atoms. In 1974 two physicists proposed that there might be a hitherto unseen and ultra-dense form of nuclear matter more stable than ordinary nuclei, which they rather alarmingly dubbed ‘abnormal’. If so, there was a small chance that even the tiniest lump of it could keep growing indefinitely by cannibalizing ordinary matter. Calculations implied that a speck of this pathological form of abnormal nuclear matter made in the Bevalac would sink to the centre of the Earth and then expand to swallow the planet, all in a matter of seconds.
No one, Kapusta says, expected that abnormal nuclear matter, if it existed at all, would really have this voracious character – but neither did anyone know enough about the properties of nuclear matter to rule it out absolutely. According to physicists Subal Das Gupta and Gary Westfall, who wrote about the motivations behind the Bevalac to mark its termination in 1993, “Meetings were held behind closed doors to decide whether or not the proposed experiments should be aborted.”
The RHIC, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, began operating in 1999 primarily to create another predicted superdense form of matter called a quark-gluon plasma. This is thought to have been what the universe consisted of less than a millisecond after the Big Bang. Following an article about it in Scientific American, worries were raised about whether matter this dense might collapse into a mini-black hole that would again then grow to engulf the planet.
Physicist Frank Wilczek dismissed this idea as “incredible”, but at the same time he raised a new possibility: the creation of another super-dense, stable form of matter called a strangelet that could again be regarded as a potential Earth-eater. In a scholarly article published in 2000, Wilczek and several coworkers analysed all the putative risks posed by the RHIC, and concluded that none posed the slightest real danger.
But isn’t this just what we’d expect high-energy physicists to say? That objection was raised by Richard Posner, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Chicago. He argued that scientific experiments that pose potentially catastrophic risks, however small, should be reviewed in advance by an independent board. He recognized that current legal training provides lawyers and judges with no expertise for making assessments about scientific phenomena “of which ordinary people have no intuitive sense whatsoever”, and asserted that such preparation is therefore urgently needed.
It seems reasonable to insist that, at the very least, such research projects commission their own expert assessment of risks, as is routinely done in some areas of bioscience. The LHC has followed the example of the RHC in doing just that. A committee has examined the dangers posed by strangelets, black holes, and the effects of possible ‘hidden’ extra dimensions of space. In 2003 they declared that “we find no basis for any conceivable threat” from the accelerator’s high-energy collisions.
These scare stories are not unique to particle physics. When in the late 1960s Soviet scientists mistakenly believed they had found a new, waxy form of pure water called polywater, one scientist suggested that it could ‘seed’ the conversion of all the world’s oceans to gloop – a scenario memorably anticipated in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, where the culprit was instead a new form of ice. Superviruses leaked from research laboratories are a favourite source of rumour and fear – this was one suggestion for the origin of AIDS. And nanotechnology was accused of hastening doomsday thanks to one commentator’s fanciful vision of grey goo: replicating nanoscale robots that disassemble the world for raw materials from which to make copies of themselves.
In part, the appeal of these stories is simply the frisson of an eschatological tale, the currency of endless disaster movies. But it’s also significant that these are human-made apocalypses, triggered by the heedless quest for knowledge about the universe.
This is the template that became attached to the Faust legend. Initially a folk tale about an itinerant charlatan with roots that stretch back to the Bible, the Faust story was later blended with the myth of Prometheus, who paid a harsh price for daring to challenge the gods because of his thirst for knowledge. Goethe’s Faust embodied this fusion, and Mary Shelley popularized it in Frankenstein, which she explicitly subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’. Roslynn Haynes, a professor of English literature, has explored how the Faust myth shaped a common view of the scientist as an arrogant seeker of dangerous and powerful knowledge.
All this sometimes leaves scientists weary of the distrust they engender, but Kapusta points out that it is occasionally even worse than that. When Das Gupta and Westfall wrote about the concerns of abnormal nuclear matter raised with the Bevalac, they were placed on the FBI’s ‘at risk’ list of individuals thought to be potential targets of the Unabomber. Between 1978 and 1995, this former mathematician living in a forest shack in Montana sent bombs through the US mail to scientists and engineers he considered to be working on harmful technologies. A lawsuit by a disgruntled Hawaiian seems mild by comparison.
And yet… might there be anything in these fears? During the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, several of the scientists involved were a little unsure, until they saw the mushroom cloud of the Trinity test, whether the explosion might not trigger runaway combustion of the Earth’s atmosphere.
The RHIC and LHC have taken far less on trust. But of course the mere acknowledgement of the risks that is implied by commissioning studies to quantify them, along with the fact that it is rarely possible to assign any such risk a strictly zero probability, must itself fuel public concern. And it is well known to risk-perception experts that we lack the ability to make a proper rating of very rare but very extreme disasters, even to the simple extent that we feel mistakenly safer in our cars than in an aeroplane.
That’s why Kapusta’s conclusion that “physicists must learn how to communicate their exciting discoveries to nonscientists honestly and seriously”, commendable though it is, can never provide a complete answer. We need to recognize that these fears have a mythic dimension that rational argument can never wholly dispel.
1. Kapusta, J. I. Preprint http://xxx.arxiv.org/abs/0804.4806
2. Das Gupta, S. & Wetfall, G. D. Physics Today 46 (May 1993), 34-40.
3. Jaffe, R. L. et al., Rev. Mod. Phys. 72, 1125-1140 (2000).
4. Posner, R. A. Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004).
5. Blaizot, J.-P. et al., ‘Study of potentially dangerous events during heavy-ion collisions at the LHC: Report of the LHC Safety Study Group’, CERN Report 2003-001.
6. Haynes R.D., From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore & London, 1994).