From the flagellants of the Middle Ages to the doomsayers of Y2K, humanity has always been prone to good old-fashioned the-end-is-nigh hysteria. The latest cause for concern: that the earth will be destroyed and the galaxy gobbled up by an ever-increasing black hole next week.
On Sept. 10, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, will switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — a $6 billion particle accelerator that will send beams of protons careening around a 17-mile underground ring, crash them into each other to re-create the immediate aftereffects of the Big Bang, and then monitor the debris in the hope of learning more about the origins and workings of the universe. Next week marks a low-power run of the circuit, and scientists hope to start smashing atoms at full power by the end of the month.
Critics of the LHC say the high-energy experiment might create a mini black hole that could expand to dangerous, Earth-eating proportions. On Aug. 26, Professor Otto Rossler, a German chemist at the Eberhard Karis University of Tubingen, filed a lawsuit against CERN with the European Court of Human Rights that argued, with no understatement, that such a scenario would violate the right to life of European citizens and pose a threat to the rule of law. Last March, two American environmentalists filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Honolulu seeking to force the U.S. government to withdraw its participation in the experiment. The lawsuits have in turn spawned several websites, chat rooms and petitions — and led to alarming headlines around the world (Britain's Sun newspaper on Sept. 1: "End of the World Due in 9 Days").
Should we be scared? No. In June, CERN published a safety report, reviewed by a group of external scientists, ruling out the possibility of dangerous black holes. It said that even if tiny black holes were to be formed at CERN — a big if — they would evaporate almost instantaneously due to Hawking Radiation, a phenomenon named for the British physicist Stephen Hawking, whose theories show that black holes not only swallow up the light, energy and matter around them, but also leak it all back out at an accelerating pace. According to Hawking, if tiny black holes occurred at CERN, they would evaporate before they got a chance to do any damage. (Even if Hawking's theories prove to be wrong — no one has yet witnessed black-hole evaporation — scientists at CERN say the LHC's collisions are already known to be harmless: an equivalent amount of energy is produced hundreds of thousands of times a day by cosmic rays colliding with the earth and other objects in the cosmos — always without incident.)
After taking in the results of CERN's report, the European Court rejected Rossler's request last week for an emergency injunction that would have stopped the LHC (it will still hear his lawsuit). The U.S. suit is pending, but CERN spokesman James Gillies said that even if it is successful the experiment will go ahead without U.S. participation.
"The U.S. court has no jurisdiction over our equipment. It could pull American scientists out of the experiment, but that would just be a great shame for them. The LHC presents no risk. What it does do is hold the promise of substantially enriching humanity by providing insight into the mysteries of the universe. It's a tremendously exciting time for physicists here and around the world," he said.
Scientists believe the LHC's results will help fill in gaps in the Standard Model, the far-reaching set of equations on the interaction of subatomic particles that is the closest that modern physics comes to a testable "theory of everything." For example, scientists believe the LHC will produce a particle, the Higgs Boson, that will end debate over how matter in the universe acquires mass. Or, it could even provide evidence for more ambitious theories of the universe, such as string theory, which unites quantum mechanics and general relativity, the previously known laws of the small and large that are currently incompatible in the Standard Model.
Despite these exciting prospects, however, physicists studying the cosmos at CERN and other accelerators still face a fundamental dilemma: to explain the awesome scale of their work while calming the public's inevitable trepidation. There remains a credibility gap surrounding high-profile physics, after all: The most tangible results of atomic research in the last 50 years have been bombs capable of ending all life on earth. CERN officials refer to the laboratory as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics because they feel "nuclear" in the literal translation carries negative implications, and tour guides at the LHC are quick to point out that the accelerator has no weapons applications.
But it's not just physicists whose work provokes strong and often irrational fear, according to Professor Robin Williams, director of the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh. He points out that the millennial anxiety about scientific and technological breakthroughs predates particle physics. When the locomotive was first conceived, for example, even some engineers predicted catastrophe resulting from the human body's inability to withstand the strains of high-speed travel. The word "vaccine" comes from the Latin word for cow, "vacca" — the first vaccinations, against smallpox, used bovine ingredients, leading to widespread fear that the injections would turn humans into cows.
But Williams also believes that the flip side of such fear is faith in the redemptive potential of science (there are equally irrational websites about CERN, for example, that predict the LHC will create wormholes to distant corners of the universe where humanity can escape to other inhabitable planets). Williams wrote in an e-mail: "I have come to see that in their early days, new technology and scientific breakthroughs often serve as Rorschach tests — a phenomenon about which we have little concrete understanding, onto which contemporary social anxieties (and dreams) can readily be projected. As a result we find (often polarized) utopian and dystopian visions being articulated." Humanity will certainly survive the LHC's experiment, Williams added, but so too will its darkest fears about its own destructive potential, and hope for its future.