Greenman's Occasional Organ

Ecosocialist. Syndicalist. Critical Techno-Progressive.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

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.

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At 6:47 pm, Anonymous Sandy said...

Thanks for this article. Its the first point of view I've heard from a non-scientist. I find it hard to trust science these days though, and feel the risks taken are too great involving a global scale as never before. In truth I am actually quite scared of the LHC experiment and I'm not sure they really have addressed the concerns. Science can be as guilty of spin as the media (e.g. gm foods)

And I had no idea how much money was being spent on this.

At 8:14 pm, Anonymous milgram said...

There was a quote in New Scientist's coverage that put this all into perspective.
"There's a 10^-19 (i.e. 0.[19zeroes]1) chance that this will cause the end of the world. There's also a 10^-11 chance that you will spontaneously evaporate when shaving in the morning"

We aren't good at judging risk or crazy numbers rationally...

From a political point of view, it is vital to separate criticism of the uses that science is put to by corporate and political interest (i.e. GM of foods) from the practice of science itself. Not understanding something is reason to try and understand, not to call for its elimination.

At 7:37 pm, Blogger scott redding said...

I'm worried far more about the amount of money spent on the LHC (versus, say, insulating tens of millions of homes in Europe) than about the possibility of mini-black-holes.

At 10:58 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The findings will be wonderful, so will the risks. They are playing with hugh amounts of enegy and we only "suppose" what could turn up from that.
I don't really think us neither them know for sure what could this bring nor what the risks could involve.
Their shield, Hawking's Decay, is just an unproven theory.
This october human kind will probably be taking its riskiest step in history.
I'm not afraid, but I think the truth is we are like monkeys playing with TNT.

At 11:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I meant "huge".

At 8:10 pm, Anonymous milgram said...

Scott: They wouldn't though, would they, the government? They'd just spend the money on bombs instead. In the same way that Lomberg's "malaria drugs not climate change" distraction technique doesn't work in the real world.

And Anonymous: how do you propose moving knowledge beyond "unproven theories" if not through experiment? To call us monkeys with TNT is to deny our ability to progress and to understand the universe around us, our environment.
The alternative is to regress into mysticism and being at the mercy of priests and witch doctors who claim to have knowledge that only they can comprehend.

At 7:08 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone think the media treatment of this today (Sept 10th - day of the "switch on") has been just weird?
First, as it says above the media (in the UK at least) have spent weeks playing up sensationalist apocalyptic fears in a way that did not encourage rational debate about proportional risks, logic or progress - then today they report about it in a ridiculous way like "if you are reading this the world hasn't ended" which seems to mix dumb flippancy, scientific ignorance and well, just a basic disregard of simple facts in equal measure. Such reports appeared not only on TV news media in the UK, but on the front page of the supposedly sober Daily Telegraph!
Either they are deliberately misinforming for some reason or they really are scientific illiterates and poor journalists. All that happened today was that the thing was switched on and protons were circulated in the 27Km loop. AFAIK none of the experiments proper - i.e. the collisions that are the focus of both reasonable and sensationalist speculation are planned to take place for some time. I could accept that a few poor journos could make that mistake, but in the UK at least this has been an almost uniform approach to today's events. What gives?

At 10:45 pm, Blogger rideforever said...

When will the scientists stop ?

The Super-LHC is planned to have 10x the power of this one, and to be built in a decade. And after that the Super-Super-LHC and after that ...

When will they stop ? Never, that is the problem.

Releasing genetically modified organisms into the planet, releasing thousands of untested chemicals into the planet, and now this experiment. Thank you very much scientists.

The author says that the scientists wouldn't be involved if they thought anything bad would happen ! Ha, if that is your reasoning we will have this wrapped up in 2 minutes. I am sure the makers of nuclear bombs, the Nazis, the Banks and every other a-hole in history said the same thing - "we didn't think anything bad would happen". Ha !

It's terrifying that the author justifies the experiement by saying that it will allow us to leave our 'limiting' planet.

WAKE UP ! We either make this planet work or we are all dead.

There is no heaven to go to.

At 7:56 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the point is, rideforever, that regardless of whether we solve all the problems on this planet or not, the fossil and geological records tells us that periodic natural cataclysms (including meteorite strikes, ice ages etc) do and will occur. Given long enough our local star, the Sun will expand to fry this planet. If we sit around here, even if we live in perfect harmony with nature, in the shorter or longer term, we are toast (and so are all other species and lifeforms trapped here).

WE are evolution and consciousness's escape mechanism from this conundrum - if only more of us would recognize it.

Ecological defence and conservation are important for many reasons - but one is to give us enough time to build the lifeboats (space or planetary colonisation) before the inevitable.
(And sorry, the makers of nuclear bombs and the leading Nazis knew *exactly* what they were doing!)

As a non-expert, any risk is concerning, but the experts (unless we believe the conspiracy theory that they are all evil geniuses out to destroy the world) all have lives and families too - do we really think they would risk them if they felt the LHC was a risk to their safety?


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