Monday, June 30, 2008

Luddites: CERN Will Destroy Earth!

From the apparent safety of their underground bunker within filing distance from the United States District Court for Hawaii, critics of an experimental particle accelerator in -- wait for it -- Switzerland alleged the likelihood that the tool's scheduled activation in August would "ultimately result in the destruction of our planet." Operated by CERN, the collaborative physics research center where the world's first web server was programmed and operated after its Tim Berners-Lee published a proposal outlining the workings of hypertext, the supercollider known as the "Large Hadron Collider" would allow experiments on subatomic particles traveling virtually the speed of light. (If you need eight significant digits to tell the difference, you are close enough I will not argue with you.)

The quick version of what supercolliders do is to focus enormous energy on tiny subjects to create circumstances so unstable and short-lived and tiny that one determines what happened, very often, by looking at what happened after and working backward to what must have occurred to yield the things that lasted long enough to be seen. Anything requiring the use of a supercollider to create seems hardly a viable candidate for an immortal world-killing cataclysm. The best we can hope for, basically, is some good film to argue about afterward. Actually keeping some kind of miniscule superparticle or black hole is an idea Crichton might have trouble selling.

The position of the critics seems to be "some knowledge was not meant for Man!" To which I respond that with 6.6% of CERN staff being female, we can just have most of the folks there blink for a minute when the data is printed.

But I joke.

The idea that humans are not fit to know the rules of the game into which they've been born is just silly. The universe appears to conduct itself according to a number of general rules, and where the rules are unclear it's entirely reasonable to conduct experiments to understand what's really happening. The ability to travel hundreds of miles per hour, send email almost as fast as thought (well, sometimes that's not such an asset, is it?), and to produce enough food to sustain the world's billions wasn't a recent gift. Success like this took years of work, each generation building atop the discoveries of predecessors.

To abandon the search into the unknown as hopeless would be such a terrible insult to the memory of those whose dedication and care have brought us so far. While it's not obvious what will be learned through fundamental research, the likelihood that we'll learn nothing of value seems so slight in view of our history that I'm inclined to dismiss it.

It looks like the government's position on this is the same.

We have enough trouble getting well-designed scientific inquiry funded without this lunacy. Maybe later I'll give myself license to vent my spleen on politically-timely issues and how really poor research gets funding while the good work sits around waiting for a sponsor.

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