Hadron colliders and the risk society

| 20th June 2008
particle accelerator.jpg
As to global annihilation, I’m stumped. Most of us wouldn’t recognise a strangelet if it casually devoured us in the street

There’s a slim chance – about one in 50 million – that nobody will ever read this article. A physics experiment taking place under the French-Swiss border could theoretically destroy the world first. In late May 2008, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest machine, is expected to begin accelerating single atoms along a 27km-long doughnut-shaped tunnel. Those atoms will then be smashed together at almost the speed of light. The aim is to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang – albeit under European countryside rather than in the empty nothingness of space.

CERN, The European Organization for Nuclear Research, which has built this giant doughnut, hopes its atom-smasher will provide glimpses of the elusive particles that make up atoms – but that might not be all. In his gloomy book, Our Final Hour, Sir Martin Rees, president of the UK’s Royal Society, offers three scenarios by which atom-smashing experiments could go badly awry. They might form tiny black holes or could destabilise empty space. They might also create theoretical quantum objects called ‘strangelets’ able to ‘transform the entire planet Earth into an inert, hyperdense sphere about 100m across’. Yikes.

Before anyone presses the panic button, however, a CERN report that weighs the chances of planetary annihilation has concluded they are too low to worry about. Fifty million to one, in fact. Even Rees admits the black holes don’t keep him awake at night. He’s a bit less sanguine about strangelets.

Nonetheless, the Large Hadron experiment raises stark questions about our relationship to technology in general. Who decides what level of technological risk is acceptable when total annihilation may be the outcome? It’s in the interests of CERN physicists to downplay the risk; the rest of us have no say. In April, Walter W. Wagner, an ex-nuclear safety officer from Hawaii, filed a private US lawsuit to restrain the Large Hadron Collider from coming online. His first hearing in mid-June might prove a bit late.

What if we did have a say? If there were a referendum on whether CERN should smash atoms or not? I suspect the public might at least ask some questions the official report overlooked. For example, should the Large Hadron Collider be gobbling up 120MW of power at a time when society needs to cut back global energy-use? This figure does not take into account the energy required for the new global computing grid that will process data from the collider. The public might question the wisdom of spending $10 billion of public funds to glimpse esoteric particles. That amount might be enough to deliver universal primary education.

As to global annihilation, I’m stumped. Most of us, after all, are not high-energy physicists and wouldn’t recognise a strangelet if it casually devoured us in the street.

That points to a bigger tragedy: that we no longer understand our technologies. Somehow we have reached the point where decisions that may weigh on our future are only intelligible to a tiny elite of scientific experts. The black holes we should worry about aren’t tiny holes in the fabric of space and time, but the yawning vacuums in our democracies over how to govern complex technology.

Jim Thomas is a research programme manager and writer with ETC group (www.etcgroup.org)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008

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