Due to a fault, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Geneva is out of action for some months. The problem was a magnet quench, or more precisely the magnet quench was a result of some deeper underlying problem. A small energy perturbation can cause a tiny region in the field coils to stop superconducting, then the heat generated from ohmic losses due to the very large currents flowing causes massive local heating which, like an avalanche effect, very quickly heats the whole field coil out of the superconducting state. This almost instantly boils off hundreds of kilogrammes of liquid helium. These things occasionally happen with large superconducting magnets, for example in MRI scanners used in hospitals, and they are both expensive in the cost of replacing the helium, and in the downtime associated with getting things up and running again.
So much for this expensive, but fairly trivial and routine setback. I’m much more concerned about the hype generated by physicists to do with the LHC. Obviously, a lot of exaggeration has been used to secure the tremendous funding for this in the first place – possibly as much as 10 billion US dollars equivalent by the time this monster starts giving interesting results. One wonders whether the BBC are simply relaying CERN press releases, or whether they are being spiced up by an over-zealous science editor.
It goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. From their BBC News website they make the following statement about the collisions experiments by the LHC:
Scientists hope it will shed light on fundamental questions in physics.
That’s absolutely fine. Spot on. That’s a statement of fact we can all sign off on. However, the statement
The LHC is built to smash protons together at huge speeds, recreating conditions moments after the Big Bang
is only partially acceptable. Yes, it is built to smash protons together at huge speeds (statement of fact). But No, it cannot be stated as a fact that it will recreate conditions moments after the Big Bang – that’s a statement of belief. Do you see the problem? The ‘Big Bang’ is merely one theory about something that happened a very long time ago. As such, the coming into being of the universe is itself one of the fundamental questions in physics. It is begging the question to state that the LHC will re-create conditions that persisted after the Big Bang when the very existence of a Big Bang is an unproven theory. Every age has its pet theory about origins, and this one will probably look very silly in a hundred years time.
It gets worse than this on BBC Radio. Today they have described the purpose of the LHC as being “to simulate the creation of the universe”. Not only is that arrant nonsense, but who is trying to kid whom? To simulate anything real, one has to have some pretty good models of reality. To suggest that one can simulate the creation of this whole gigantic universe in a trillionth of a second with an apparatus that produces less energy per collision than a fly on the windshield is to be seriously misinformed, to say the least.
The amount of silly science around the LHC seems to know no bounds, and physicists seem extremely touchy about being challenged. I speak from experience, having read physics at the University of Oxford in the 1970s, and seen such behaviour there first hand. Some persons (not me, I hasten to add) have genuine concerns about the possibility of the earth being swallowed up by black holes – and why not? Black holes are not the easiest things to understand, and physicists and cosmologists have been trying to educate and interest the public for decades about their possible existence and characteristics. So it is hardly surprising that there is genuine alarm about the possibility of these being produced in Geneva.
Professor Brian Cox is one of the LHC scientists at Geneva, and a so-called ‘evangelist for science’, much admired by Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society. According to Professor Jeff Forshaw, a colleague of Cox,
…he’s passionate about the way science is seen, and communicating this whole process has immense value.
Yet Cox has has this to say (reported by the BBC) about those who are concerned about catastrophic effects of black holes being produced by the LHC
This non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes intelligent design amongst other things. The only serious issue is why so many people who don’t have the time or inclination to discover for themselves why this stuff is total crap have to be exposed to the opinions of these half-wits.
Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat.
What marvellous communication skills! It’s a case of point weak, shout loud. Note the unnecessary swipe at ‘intelligent design’ along the way, something about which Cox is incompetent to judge. Unfortunately, the physicists have disgraced themselves by using illogical and unsatisfactory reasoning, that’s why there’s mistrust. On the one hand, it is conjectured that the LHC will help solve fundamental questions in physics because it will re-create conditions and energies not seen since the first trillionth of a second since the Big Bang. From that flows the rather obvious deduction that such a condition would be a unique one in the history of mankind, with no exemplar except the creation of the universe itself. This, in itself, makes it impossible to do a meaningful risk assessment. To counter the concern of this, CERN produced a report that concluded that there was “no conceivable danger” posed by running the LHC. Oh really? The BBC reported as follows:
The lay language summary of the report, which has been written by Cern’s top theorists, states: “Over the past billions of years, nature has already generated on Earth as many collisions as about a million LHC experiments – and the planet still exists.”
Of course, this is completely at odds with the assertion that the energy levels produced in the LHC have not been seen since the Big Bang, hence the need to build the beast in the first place in order to see what happened at the Big Bang.
The CERN report goes on to state
There is no basis for any concerns about the consequences of new particles or forms of matter that could possibly be produced by the LHC.
What confidence, when the physicists say that they do not themselves know what particles or forms of matter will emerge from the collisions, or what their properties will be! After all, that is the main purpose of building the LHC, isn’t it? It is the height of arrogance to overlook the concerns of the ‘layman’ about the “unknown unknowns”. Stephen Hawking, for one, is hoping that the LHC will not find the elusive Higgs boson particle, so that there will be plenty of “unknown unknowns” to spend good money chasing down in years to come.
Stephen Hawking puts the odds of the LHC producing black holes as less than 1%. Some physicists consider it rather more probable than that. In any event, one wouldn’t fly a plane, or switch on a nuclear reactor, or release germs, or subject populations to drugs and chemicals if the odds on something going catastrophically wrong were around 1% or so. So the physicists must believe that any black holes produced will be entirely benign.
So why do the physicists consider the black holes will be benign? Well, it is because they are said not to be able to persist for long. Why not? Because they will lose energy and decay (it is said) due to ‘Hawking radiation’. Has Hawking radiation been observed before? No – it is a theoretical concept propounded by Stephen Hawking, and if the LHC produces black holes and Hawking radiation is detected then this will give weight to Hawking’s black hole theories, and he will be in line for a Nobel prize. Hawking told the BBC
If the LHC were to produce little black holes, I don’t think there’s any doubt I would get a Nobel prize, if they showed the properties I predict.
Once again the ‘layman’ has good reason to be frustrated. The ‘half-witted’ layman is not as stupid as some of these physicists make him out to be. He doesn’t have to be a particle physicist or a cosmologist to know an illogical and unsafe argument when he sees one. Scientists and engineers working in every other field of endeavour, and non-scientific persons assessing health and safety at work, understand that no procedure can be considered an acceptable risk when it relies for its safety on an outcome that has never been tested and proved, and is actually unknown, and where the consequences of a ‘safe’ outcome not occuring are catastrophic. That’s an action known in courts the world over as recklessness.