The LHC - Progress, Responsibility and Risk
"The End Of The World - Coming Next Week! (Possibly)" Has been the sort of sensationalist line of the UK media this week when commenting on next week's scheduled switch on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest particle accelerator complex, buried deep beneath the French-Swiss border.
Beyond the hysteria, the operational stage of the LHC experiment raises serious questions about progress, responsibility and risk. The questions can also be related to the effect of the media frenzy over MMR and the current rise in Measles cases in the UK, and to the treatment of the science of climate change in the UK tabloid and reactionary press.
In the case of the LHC we have a massively expensive and technically difficult engineering project to facilitate an experiment that might seem esoteric and lacking in practical application to the general public. The experiments and observations scheduled at the LHC are designed to look at the building blocks of the universe by recreating on a tiny scale some of the conditions that may have existed at the theorised origins of the universe. Questions around particle physics and such subjects as Higgs boson and dark matter may be illuminated or resolved.
The fears that have been raised by some unconnected with the project and exploited by the media are to do with the creation of micro black holes or alternatively, "strangelets".
The worries expressed in the media and in the law suits raised in the USA and Europe have been that a stable black hole would be produced which would migrate to the centre of the planet and then devour the earth and the solar system, or that strangelets would be produced that would convert all surrounding matter and also result in global destruction. These worries have been dismissed both by the project and those involved in safety enquiries into the projected experiments. The counter arguments are that any tiny black holes produced would be inherently unstable and short lived and that there is no chance of the Strangelet scenario.
It does seem unlikely that anyone involved in the project would continue if they thought that there was any chance at all of their work leading to the destruction of themselves, their families or their planet, let alone larger scale destruction. The doom mongers counter that the vast amounts of money involved, the vested interests, the professional careers and reputations at stake, and "intellectual arrogance" militate against serious questioning of the safety risks involved. This is not too convincing and sounds rather similar to the arguments put forward by climate change deniers as to why the world's scientific and political establishments would "lie" and collude on such a large scale as required by the broad IPCC consensus. It is also reminiscent of the arguments about the safety of the triple MMR vaccination programme, following the now discredited single piece of research that was used by the media and "natural health" campaigners to sow doubts about safety in the minds of parents. In that case the inevitable result is now seen in the steady increase in cases of measles in the UK, with potentially tragic results for some of the parents and children that avoided vaccination. The consequences of the political power of climate change denial could be even more serious given the predicted timescales and what we are told by the majority of experts about the necessary reductions in CO2 emissions.
I believe that there is a middle path to be taken between uncritical techno-utopianism and ill-informed technophobia.
A techno-progressive approach, with a democratic, ecosocialist and humanist grounding would suggest that all technical advances should be held up to scrutiny and debated as openly as possible - with their social and environmental consequences assessed as well as their economic and scientific ones. Whilst a certain suspicion of the distorting potential of the current economic and social systems is reasonable (we only have to look at the massive PR and spin currently around nuclear power and GM foods), reflex anti-scientism and cynicism are not helpful, particularly when they are coupled with a religiously based conservatism or rose-tinted glasses view of history and tradition, as is often the case. (As I have said before on here, these latter objections are my main criticisms of the work of writers such as Schumacher, regardless of their uncriticised popularity amongst some sections of the Green movement.)
All this said, the LHC experiment does raise ethical issues. Whilst defending the right and necessity of scientists exploring blue sky areas of research with no currently appreciable practical application one does feel a little uneasy about the colossal cost and concentration of research effort that has gone into this single project. Let us hope that the "technological/commercial spin offs" which some of those involved in the LHC have suggested give some extra credibility to the project are valuable enough in human terms to justify some of the expense and effort if, as sometimes postulated, the experiments do not yield significant results to add to, or alter, our understanding of the universe.
One of the most convincing criticisms of the whole thing comes from the former UK Government Chief Science Adviser Sir David King, who suggests that in the light of the pressing problems with energy and climate change then expenditure and research effort in the area of renewable energy would be a better use of £500 Million the UK have contributed and the money contributed by other governments. A Guardian article today contrasts the £83 million spent (on average per annum) since 2002 by the UK government on renewable energy sources with the £78 Million (on average per annum since 1995) contribution to CERN, the body responsible for the LHC. This criticism is not so much of the nature or supposed dangers of the project, so much as its' timing.
Whilst I would very much like to believe all the assurances of the LHC scientists and accept that they have to a large extent answered the worries raised in the lawsuits, let us hope that there really are no unforeseen consequences to their experiment. However, when it comes down to it, the odds for survival of intelligent lifeforms on this planet in the long term are very slim (as detailed in Martin Rees's work I have previously referenced) - and without intelligent lifeforms it would seem that the long term survival of any earth-based lifeforms is also limited by the cosmic constraints of the lifetime of our star, and more pressingly the incidence of meteor, asteroid and cometary collisions.
Correspondingly, the ability to leave the confines of this beautiful and delicate, (but ultimately imprisoning and limiting) planet and solar system will depend on continued expansion of knowledge and technical ability for humans and whatever lifeforms may evolve from, or after us. Thus experiments like that at the LHC may on the one hand raise the (allegedly so slim as to be not worth measuring) possibility of our destruction, but may also be one of the only ways in which we can gain the knowledge necessary to ensure survival/continued evolution of humanity and earth-evolved life forms in the long term. In short, we, and the life that has evolved here may perish either way. Life's choices are seldom easy and seldom without risk - those who would seek to minimise some risks may unwittingly (as in the case of MMR vaccination) expose us to other risks of variable magnitude.
Those of us who are able must strive for the utmost transparency and accountability so that risks that we must take are properly assessed and understood. In the end this can only be fully achieved in a society with far more economic and social democracy than we currently experience even in the allegedly most "advanced" parts of the world.