Posted: Wednesday 10 September 2008
A ripple of anxiety has been going round the school this week after press stories of the switching on of the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland suggested that scientists might be about to recreate the ‘Big Bang’. There was talk of mini black holes being created, which might swell and engulf the earth and all its inhabitants.
I think the story illustrates well the current attitude that our society has towards science – always ready to believe the worst about mad scientists who will irresponsibly put us all at risk in some way. I couldn’t help feeling that the reality at CERN is probably a lot different. Anyone who has ever done a complicated scientific experiment knows that it takes ages of fiddling adjustment to make the machines work and its more likely that this ‘switching on’ of the machine simply marks another phase in years more of fiddling with it until they get some results.
And remember that ‘black holes’ are only theoretical constructs that try to explain some of the end-state conditions in sets of complex relativity equations, no-one actually knows they exist, and if so, what they are. Finding the elusive Higgs Boson which is needed for internal self-consistency would help cement the claims of current theories – but the theories could be wrong. Some scientists have suggested that the vast amount of money being spent on this particle physics research would be better spent on climate change research, or world poverty. Perhaps. But if we stop pure scientific research because it doesn’t look like it will lead to anything practical for humankind we are misunderstanding the very nature of scientific enquiry. The fact that the experimenter doesn’t know where the research is leading is often the point of the experiment.
I have no doubt that when the CERN scientists do find a Higgs Boson (or not) after more years of research we will be further on in our understanding of the universe, and that must be a good thing. And I don’t believe the good people of Switzerland, some of whom must live right on top of the particle accelerator, would allow black holes to be created under their houses without a murmur of protest.