Saturday, September 13, 2008

LHC Fired Up, World Still Here

Some personal issues with which I've had to deal over the past few days have kept me from posting everyday. But most of them are cleared up now, so it's back to blogging.

As I'm sure most of you have noticed, the world did not end on Wednesday when the $8 billion Large Hadron Collider was turned on for the first time. Since most other science/geek blogs have already written about this fact ad nauseam, most more eloquently then I, I'll keep this post short and touch on two points which deserve more media attention then they are currently receiving.

The first piece comes from the blog of astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, of which I was made aware by the blog Universe Today. Since most news reports talking about the LHC have managed to shoehorn in the fallacy that the collider could create a black hole large enough to destroy the Earth, Dr. Siegel took it upon himself to determine the worst case scenario of the actual particle-smashing that will take place in the months to come. Siegel describes what would happen if every single collision created a tiny black hole:

"Let’s assume that one million of these collisions occur, and all of them make black holes, which can then merge together (again, this is incredibly, unrealistically optimistic, but let’s go for it). For the maximum collision energy at CERN (14 TeV), E = mc2 tells us that the end black hole would have a mass of 2.5 x 10-14 grams. That’s 25 femtograms, which means this black hole would have an event horizon trillions upon trillions of times smaller than the size of a proton."

The event horizon being the point from which nothing, including light, would be able to escape the tremendous gravity of the black hole. So, if the LHC were to create a black hole, it would only suck in particles within a radius trillions upon trillions of times smaller than that of a proton. To put it mildly, that's really small.

Siegel goes on to describe what would happen if one of these microscopic black holes were to start eating it's way into the Earth:

"As it falls into the Earth, it starts running into protons, and let’s assume whenever it runs into one, it gobbles it up. By time it gets to the center of the Earth, it will have eaten about 10-16 grams of matter, which means it can grow by about 0.4% in the 30 minutes or so it takes to get to the center of the Earth. It will then head towards the other side, gobbling up that matter until it stops in the upper mantle, and then heads back towards the center of the Earth. It should do this over and over, each time gobbling up more matter (at a constant rate of about 4 x 10-16 grams per hour), each time getting farther and farther away from the Earth’s surface, never to quite reach it again. "

How dangerous would such a black hole be? According to Siegel, at this rate it would take 3 billion years for this black hole to consume even one gram of matter. I repeat, that's one gram of matter every 3 billion years. Even then, Siegel's calculations are assuming the LHC can create a black hole. A claim he goes on to refute in the last part of his post:

"Even if you managed to make this 25 femtogram black hole, it would decay into normal matter incredibly fast. How fast? According to Hawking radiation, this black hole will be gone in 10-66 seconds, which means, unless there is some incredible new physics (like extra dimensions), we can’t even make a black hole! Why not? Because anything that happens in a time less than the Planck time (10-43 seconds) cannot physically happen with our current understanding of physics."

So, every single news story reporting the possible danger the LHC posed to humanity was completely and utterly out of touch with reality. Physicists working at the LHC released statement after statement telling everyone that the experiment posed no danger. Why did reputable news outlets such as MSNBC even mention the possibility of the world ending? Just to grab the attention of readers? Was reporting on the most important science experiment in recent memory not enough?

Maybe more responsible reporting could have prevented the next item about which I'm going to write: the story of a girl in India who took her own life for fear of the world ending at the hands of the physicists working at the LHC.

I first read about this on Dr. Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog. reported the story Wednesday. The 16-year-old girl named Chayya Lal reportedly drank pesticide last Tuesday and was rushed to the hospital. Once there, doctors were unable to save her.

Lal's parents repeatedly tired to "divert her attention" from the myriad fear-mongering stories about the LHC. From the article:

"Her father, identified on local television as Biharilal, said that his daughter, Chayya, killed herself after watching doomsday predictions made on Indian news programs."

Apparently, many Indian programs have been airing discussions regarding doomsday predictions over the past few days. Chayya's parents were quoted as saying that they tried to convince their daughter there was nothing to worry about, but to know avail.

The MSNBC article said reassurances by physicists as to the safety of the LHC fell on mostly deaf ears in the "deeply religious and superstitious India." East Indian temples saw thousands more devotees than usual last Tuesday due to the Wednesday start-up of the LHC, according to a temple official in Orissa state quoted in the article.

Dr. Plait writes much more passionately about this then I am able to
. While it pains me to see the effects of superstition and irresponsible journalism taken to this extreme, Dr. Plait speaks on the importance of critical thinking and skepticism from his position as a father:

"I’m a parent. I sometimes think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is love her, keep her healthy, protect her. But in all of those, there is an overarching responsibility for me to teach her how to live in the real world. And that means showing her how to think. Not
what to think, but how. Question authority. Be skeptical of claims. Ask for evidence. Apply good logic. Avoid bad logic. Analyze the results. Look for bias. And doubt. Doubt doubt doubt. It’s one of the greatest strengths of the human mind, and perhaps the least used of all"

Dr. Plait speaks of the blame to be placed upon the girl's superstitious culture, the media and science-illiterates who pushed the "LHC=death garbage," but maintains the majority of the blame lies with us:

"Too many people choose not to think. But our technology, our society, our impact is vast, and now, today, in this world, that choice is one we can no longer afford."

To paraphrase a particularly apt Shakespeare line, "The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

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GumbyTheCat said...

Great post! I want to link to this if that's OK with you.

The only unfortunate thing is that the uneducated panic-mongers don't care about the actual science, therefore your excellent reasoning will not affect them in the least.

However, those who are actually looking for the truth and don't know who to believe should be helped immensely by articles like this.

Jeremy said...

Thanks for the kind words. I'd be delighted if you linked to this post. However, I really have Phil Plait's post to thank for even coming up with the idea to write mine.