That means, undoubtedly, we’ll soon be hearing again about how the particle physics researchers at CERN are going to “summon the demon” with all this work playing God with the subatomic particles of the known physical universe. After all, back in 2008, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was first getting going, there were dire warnings that the massive particle accelerator was going to destroy the earth.
Yes, that’s right, “destroy the earth.”
And that, of course, led a group of citizens to file a lawsuit against CERN and its U.S. contributors in Hawaii, claiming that the LHC could “create unsafe conditions of physics.” A black hole would either swallow up the Earth, or a bunch of ‘strangelet’ particles could run amok on the surface of the Earth, gobbling up regular matter. In short, they claimed, the LHC was “a threat to the earth.” And that led to all kinds of memes and musings and comic routines about the potential destructive power of the LHC.
This time, the particles being smashed into each other will be traveling even faster than in 2012, as scientists look for all sorts of strange particles — maybe even a companion Higgs — and probe into the makings of mysterious dark matter. In just a warm-up, LHC succeeded in smashing together protons at 13 trillion electron volts. Last time around, even the CERN scientists admitted that there were scenarios in which micro-black holes could be created as a result of all those high-energy collisions. So what’s going to happen this time around? (Cue the scary background music.)
This argument against the LHC, in its broad outlines, should sound very similar, because it’s essentially the same one that we’re hearing now about artificial intelligence. Researchers come up with an audacious plan using scientific concepts only an elite group of people have mastered, millions of dollars get invested in building something very sophisticated and … suddenly the earth is at risk of being swallowed up by a black hole or taken over by computers. People are afraid that AI will destroy humanity, not out of some evil design of AI researchers, but simply because they will lose control of the technology. In the words of Elon Musk, we’re somehow “summoning the demon” by trying to explore beyond certain barriers and putting our faith in machines to find the answers.
In the case of the LHC, it doesn’t help that we talk about the famed Higgs boson as “the God Particle.” The idea being, of course, that smashing massive amounts of protons together at extremely high energies will eventually enable researchers to get a closer understanding of the moment of the Big Bang, when everything in the universe was theoretically created. Once the reactions get big enough, these particle researchers won’t be able to find any smaller particles, and that’s when we will know which particles existed at the time of the creation of the universe. Even if you’re not particularly religious, that’s a pretty disquieting notion.
There are several reasons why fields such as AI or particle physics are so scary for many. You certainly can’t blame pure naïveté – because often the people attacking the science are those that are extremely well educated. With AI, for example, it’s hard to argue with the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates or Elon Musk.
One reason could be the ascendancy of the Hollywood dystopian film in American pop culture and how that shapes our view of science. The guiding logic of any Hollywood blockbuster film is that there must be a disaster so mind-blowing that it threatens to wipe out humanity or destroy the earth. That implies that the technologies with the greatest opportunity to push humanity forward are also the ones that become key elements of these disaster scenarios. A good Hollywood dystopian film naturally involves billionaire investors in search of fantastic profits, secretive agreements between researchers (each on a maniacal, egocentric mission), and sinister organizations with uncertain motives.
Another big reason is the misunderstanding, in many ways, of the value of pure science. And particle physics is, in its essence, probably the purest “pure” science there is. As pointed out in “Particle Fever,” the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary about the quest to find the Higgs boson, the quest for this elusive particle was unlike any endeavor in how it brought together both theorists and experimentalists in the quest for pure knowledge. Finding the Higgs boson was not about doing something tangible, such as landing on the moon, or in generating profits for a multi-billion-dollar corporation. The researchers sought to find evidence of the Higgs — but knew they couldn’t actually glimpse it. Millions of dollars, more than a decade of work, all in the pursuit of something that could result in nothing, “other than understanding everything.”
Ultimately, the reason why the “destroy the earth” nonsense gets started is because researchers are doing more than just searching for a new particle — they are asking a fundamental question that has always fascinated humanity: Where did we come from? The innovative work that goes into answering that question holds enormous implications for each and every one of us, and finding out the answer is more than a little scary.