Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Ghost in the Machine: the LHC, 2012 and the death of the 5th sun

As pattern-seeking animals it's always interesting to see just how many correlations we can find that aren't actually there. If today's techno-hip population of humans were primarily rational creatures the failure of numerous apocalyptic prophecies over the past century would surely have put paid to this pseudoscientific cottage industry. Yet a Hollywood blockbuster is now capitalising on yet another date for Armageddon looming on the horizon: December 2012, the Mayan death of the fifth sun. I first read about this impending doom more than a decade ago courtesy of Graham Hancock (I know, I know, but I really believe you should read all sides to an argument). However, Mayan scholars are apparently undecided as to whether translations of the Mayan calendar are accurate as to both the date and magnitude of events, as there aren't any Mayans around to verify. Of course this hasn't stopped the wishful unthinkers from elaborating the prediction ad nauseam.

Turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, when the Large Hadron Collider was nearing operation in 2008 the media interest was frankly astonishing, making the LHC an international celebrity in its own right. I wonder that if despite the size and cost, would this interest have been as great if the Higgs Boson wasn't also known as the God particle? Although I recently noticed a mortgage advertisement that proclaimed their application process wasn't akin to writing a thesis on quantum physics (perhaps the latter is the new 'rocket science'), the public understanding of quantum theory is minimal considering how long it has been around. But perhaps it's not that surprising, since most people's idea of science still clings to Victorian notions of certainty and absolute truths, not ambiguity and probability waves, never mind 'spooky action at a distance'. After all, if even Einstein wasn't convinced, why should non-scientists jump up and down with anticipation? Just don't get me started on the Copenhagen Interpretation...

The LHC-doomsday combo came together in a formal scientific sense in 2007 with the first of Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya's papers on whether 'something' from the future (insert creation overseer of your choice here) would sabotage the LHC and thus prevent it from destroying the Universe. The media seemed to have little idea how to handle the story when it was popularised this autumn: they were fairly certain it wasn't a spoof, yet its speculations veered towards the crackpot. Few journalists understand enough quantum theory to differentiate the implausible yet genuine hypothesis from the bizarre but almost certainly untenable. Perhaps JBS Haldane's classic 'the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose' would help, or Niels Bohr's comment as to whether a particular theory was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.

Unfortunately other scientists don't want to debate Nielsen and Ninomiya's speculation but promptly shrug it off as a wacky thought experiment that got far too much attention. Yet wouldn't this have been a perfect opportunity to publicise the self-correcting aspect of the scientific method whilst relaying a little quantum mechanics along the way (not to mention convincing the tax payers of 40+ nations that all our little contributions were well spent)? A lot of post-nineteenth century physics started solely as thought experiments (okay, and maybe some impenetrable maths too), until years' later the experimenters managed to catch up. I'm no N&N fan club, but as the collider nears full operation surely the CERN staff would be pleased with any public elucidation. A few less worriers might help to lessen the phone calls pleading for the LHC to be shut down before it causes the end of the world...

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