Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The LHC, lawsuits, and the time-traveling seagull of doom

Sometimes I feel like all I do in this blog is to deliver bad news.  Gullibility and credulousness are rampant, not to mention hoaxers and charlatans who are eager to turn a quick buck by ripping off the less rational segment of society.  All around us we see examples of absurd, counterfactual nonsense, and evidence that a regrettably small number of laypeople have any idea of how science actually works.

It thrills me no end that today I have a cheering story, a story of the triumph of critical thinking over fearful, superstitious woo-woo.  The gist: German courts have ruled, once and for all, that the Large Hadron Collider is what physicists say it is -- a scientific device designed to investigate the subatomic world -- and that it most definitively is not going to destroy the entire universe, or even just the Earth.  [Source]

Claims that the LHC is going to kill us all have been going around for some time.  I suppose that it was inevitable that people would be afraid of the device, given the fact that subatomic physics is a fairly esoteric area of study, poorly understood by anyone who doesn't have a master's degree or better in physics.  For another thing, it's hard not to be awestruck simply by how amazingly big it is.  The tube down which particles are accelerated to near-light speed, and then smashed into targets, is 27 kilometers in circumference.  The magnets in the device alone weigh over 27 tons, and require 96 tons of liquid helium to keep them at the right (extremely cold) temperature.

So it shouldn't be surprising that the woo-woos got freaked out by the thing.  Here are a few cheery suggestions they made about what was going to happen when the LHC was activated:
  • It would produce a mini black hole that would devour the Earth.
  • It would produce a Higgs boson that would then generate a new universe inside ours, ripping apart our universe from the inside out.
  • It would create a particle called a "strangelet" that then would convert everything it touched into "strangelets," and the whole world would explode in a burst of, um, strangeness.
  • The beam would break loose from containment and vaporize France.  Some American conservatives, of the sort who still eat "Freedom Fries" with their cheeseburgers, thought this was a good idea.
Of course, it didn't help that the first year that the LHC was up and running, it was plagued with problems.  There were funding shortfalls, technical difficulties, and even a shutdown caused by a seagull dropping a piece of a baguette on the power lines near the facility, causing an electrical short.  All of this, the alarmists said, couldn't be a coincidence.  There were religious folks that claimed that god himself was sabotaging the LHC to stop it from destroying everything.  My favorite version of this theory was dreamed up by, of all people, two physicists -- Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya -- who wrote a paper suggesting that scientists in the future were reaching back in time and stopping the LHC from operating because they (the future scientists) know that the LHC will cause widespread destruction, havoc, and chaos.  The seagull, presumably, was one of their minions, sent here from the future with a Death Baguette to short-circuit the place.

Well, of course, now that the LHC has been running off and on since 2009, and we haven't died, a lot of the furor has died down.  There have been no black holes, new universes, or strangelets, France remains unvaporized, and there have been no further visits from the Time-Traveling Seagull of Doom.  But not all of the craziness has ceased, of course.  Whatever else you might say about woo-woos, they're tenacious.  Just because the destruction of The Universe As We Know It hasn't happened yet, they claim, doesn't mean that it won't ever.

So there have been lawsuits to try to stop the research.  The most recent was launched by a German woo-woo who filed suit in both Germany and Switzerland to halt operations, because, after all, you never know when we might all be swallowed by a black hole, and when that happens it will be too late.

And unlike the court case earlier this week in Italy, where unscientific foolishness won the day, here the courts ruled in favor of science.  There is no evidence, the judge ruled, that anything being done at the LHC is dangerous in the global sense.  Physicists are quite certain that any claims of black holes and new universes are impossible, and that was good enough for the court.  The suit was thrown out, and (it is to be hoped) the plaintiff was instructed to become better educated in science before wasting the legal system's time further.

So, it might be rare, but we should cheer it when it happens: sometimes the rationalists win.

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