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And What Do You Think About CERN?
by Alexandra Pereira
2008-09-13 09:02:47
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While some people keep spending outrageous amounts of energy warning others about the End of the World in the form of euthanasia debates or through human and public health measures like the legalization of abortion, this 10th of September at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research located on the Franco-Swiss border, a group of enthusiastic nuclear physicists begun their experiments with the LHC, or Large Hadron[i] Collider, which highest potency (taking the form of beams of high-energy particles and their forced collisions) will only be reached on the 26th of October 2008.

The LHC is a particle accelerator which has the shape of a circumference-tunnel with 27 kilometres of diameter, located 100 metres underground near the airport of Geneva. It will allow scientists to provoke proton collisions violent enough to cause the division of these elementary particles. The main official goals of the experiments in which the LHC will be protagonist? To replicate the events involved in the Big Bang at a different scale and help to explain the fundamental force which unites all the matter existing in the Universe – that is, to unveil the mystery of the structure of the matter, which Physics cannot explain yet. Also, quite prosaically, one or more small black holes (let’s say, the size of a needle hole, or a needle at most) will probably be created.

All these seem to be reasons for us to cheer one more significant scientific advance, even because CERN is, among other amazing discoveries, the original home of the World Wide Web and the responsible for the development of some important medical technologies. But let us look at this project more closely, or with a critical magnifying glass. After all, many of the CERN’s brilliant minds are busy with the LHC at this precise moment. It starts with a pair of denunciations made by two distinct groups of scientists who believe that there is a real risk involved in the experiments planned. One of these complaints was made directly to the European Court for the Human Rights, which verdict was simply that CERN’s scientists (and their sponsors, of course, including the European political institutions) could go ahead with the project.

It goes on with some facts: this particle accelerator is the most powerful in the world (although Americans have the Tevatron, plans to beat the LHC capacity already started across the Atlantic – it seems to be some kind of competition now). Particle acceleration structures involve amounts of energy incomparably higher than those associated with “common” nuclear plants, which means that the risks involved are literally hundreds of times higher. As mentioned, there is the Tevatron in Illinois, less powerful than the LHC (and if something would go wrong with Tevatron, for example, there would not be a single bacteria left alive in a region geographically equivalent to China).

No one has ever created the experimental conditions involved in the LHC project before, no one ever dealt with such high amounts of energy and no one created… black holes before. There seem to be some theoretical/practical clefts about black holes too: first of all, even if they are the size of a needle, they can grow. Second, scientists think that a certain type of radiation can evaporate them – but they are still not sure if such radiation exists. An analogy with cosmic rays is supposed to demonstrate the safety of the colliders – but that’s not sure either, and whether or not colliders can produce radiation is controversial. It is not sure how stable could the micro black holes produced be and, last but not least, the group of scientists who complained to the European Court for the Human Rights affirms that a black hole generated by the LHC is able to absorb the entire planet. Hummm… intriguing.

And it ends up with some interesting declarations. When asked about the practical applications of the LHC, Guido Tonelli, one of the physicists who are responsible for the project, answered: “Every time Physics discovers a new thing, our life gets better”. We could start arguing about this statement and the most obvious example comes to my mind in the form of a… mushroom. “Even considering that there could be mistakes, which is something not likely to happen with the best scientists in the world, we have to remind that there are more powerful explosions in the Universe and no catastrophe happens”, he adds. The complete interview is not very tranquilizing, and in the end one gets a strong feeling that Mr. Tonelli is trusting in his… luck just as others trust in God.

Meanwhile, the Italian writer Angelo Paratico, who’s releasing his “Black Hole” novel soon, about a test like the one CERN will be doing in a near future, refuses any parallelism between fiction and possible future sceneries involving the LHC, including any catastrophical outcomes: “The true problem is in the future, since [in America] they are already thinking about increasing the levels of energy involved (…) [What’s in question] are the limits and responsibilities of science. Nuclear physicists tend to be arrogant and they like to play almighty gods games. I think science should act with humbleness, accepting the limits imposed by the society”. 

[i] A hadron is any strongly interacting composite subatomic particle. All hadrons are composed of quarks, and they are divided into two classes: Baryons, strongly interacting fermions such as a neutron or a proton, made up of three quarks, and Mesons, strongly interacting bosons consisting of a quark and an antiquark.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-09-14 06:31:45
To answer the query of the title of the piece above, one of the great insights of Giambattista Vico written in his “New Science” close to three hundred years ago is that science which studies nature and natural phenomena, while admittedly allowing us to probe their mysteries, will never reveal nature to human-kind 100%. The reason is that nature was not made by man. Indeed, the ability to manipulate nature leads to a delusion on our part that somehow we can, via science, usher in the eight day of creation; which is to say we can become a god and do a better job that She did in six days. Some have even suggested that God should not have rested on the seventh day. She should have eliminated the flaws first. This is hubris at its best. It is the kind of hubris that leads powerful people, such as emperor Caligula, to declare themselves gods. A more humble and realistic stance would be to focus on the things that humans have done and whose origins and development can be discovered and known 100% or at least in principle hope to know: language, history, political institutions, artifacts, science itself in its historical development. In other words, we need to return to the wisdom of Socrates dictum “Know Thyself” understood not on an individualistic level but at the collective level. Closer to our times, here is a statement by Malcolm Muggeridge: “The atom has been split, the universe has been discovered, and will soon be explored. Neither achievements has any bearing on what interests me—which is why life exists, and what is the significance, if any, of my minute and so transitory part in it.”

Emanuel Paparella2008-09-14 06:41:02
What is lost signt in all the self-congratulation regarding the production of the big bang and black holes is that they are not creations from nothing. They are creations out of something that is already there. The mystery of the big bang that continues baffling scientists is that it seems to issue of nothing material. Philosophy begins in wonder. So the deeper question which philosophy can ask and science will never be able to answer is this: why is there something rather than nothing? Many children ask it in wonder. A philosopher of the stature of Heidegger begins his Being and Time with that question. Fools scoff at it.

Alexandra P.2008-09-15 15:54:30
You know, I'm totally against alarmism, speculation and "end of the world" sceneries.

I didn't know much about this subject until it was carefully explained to me by a friend who's a physicist and, although enthusiastic with CERN's experiments, is also reluctant about them, scientifically synthesizing them like this: "they are nuts!". This made me wonder, though I'm not sure about what to think about it either.

One thing I'm sure of: CERN has big communication problems with the society in general (for example, they invented the WWW but didn't even think about its social and practical applications - someone else explored them later). This hiatus in communication is responsible for much of the speculation now, as most people are ignorant of what's going on there. Also, above all I think that the scientists should not conduct this kind of experiment without explaining to the general population the risks involved, and very clearly. This has not been done with the LHC, obviously. That's what I condemn.

In the long run, I wonder also about what type of weapons can be developed from those findings, as the applications are broad and the americans have proven to us before that the ends can be wrong too, by exploring such discoveries to develop new weapons (and I'm not talking about the mushroom now, but very recent things, like the electrical-field weapons developed in their military base in Alaska, where many top physicists work for them). That's another worry, and makes me concerned sometimes if that's not why clear communication and general debate were not desired in this case, not by the scientists involved nor by the european governments.

Alexandra P.2008-09-15 16:49:43
ps - just to explain a bit more, the electrical-field weapons are science-fiction turned true: other physicists say that they already know there in Alaska, through the artificial creation of atmospheric electrical fields, how to burn a medium-sized city in seconds - that's actually one of the weapons developed. Sounds like sci-fi but it's a real and very worrying application of the Tevatron's findings. Much of what happens in the Alaska base (and which experiments are developed there by the physicists who apply Tevatron's findings to military engineering) is ignored by common people - in that way, it's interesting the parallelism with CERN's physicists and european governments' muteness.

Alexandra P.2008-09-15 16:59:41
Specially, I get worried when the scientific community ITSELF gets worried about their colleagues.

Alexandra P.2008-09-15 17:07:50
That seems to demand proper explanation - which didn't exist until now.

Emanuel Paparella2008-09-15 17:09:15
Thomas Kuhn called the scientist community the priesthood of science and he got hell for it. After all scientists are the only one who can be wholly unbiased; how dare mix that with religion! Indeed, tell that to the fairy godmother!

Alexandra P.2008-09-15 17:29:23
I don't know about religion, I'm more worried about them mixing it with politics and military industry.

Mario2008-09-17 05:11:01
Good article.
Just finish reading Angelo Paratico's Black Hole, Mursia, Milan, 2008.

Here is the link for those who can read italian:


It is a very well written and captivating work, but the author forecasts an accident at the LHC by the end of the year, not on Sept 10th as all papers have written, when the LHC beams of protons were not actually smashing against each other.

There is also oriental phylosophy, arts, religion into this book. Mario/Rome

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