September 29 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Social Issues Year: General Rating: 6 Hot
Inspired, in part, by Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
People are expressing some pretty melodramatic and, dare I say, silly reactions to the Large Hadron Collider. Every time I turn around, there’s a new headline about the LHC. Several papers have labelled it The God Machine, and some misinformed bloggers have dubbed it the Doomsday Machine. Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho filed their famous lawsuit against the collider because it might cause the end of the world. And of course, my personal favorite, this guy.
These reactions are a little strange to me because the collider isn’t a new technology. We’ve had particle accelerators for decades—the first was invented in 1929. The LHC is just the latest in a series of upgrades. It’s a powerful machine, yes, but with this amount of hysteria and awe, you’d think we’d harnessed the power of the atom to make weapons capable of incinerating the Earth many times over. Oh wait, we already did that. In 1945.
With all the sophisticated and powerful weaponry we’ve developed that’s designed to kill and inflict damage on a massive scale, why is everyone so worked up about a research device? Well, for one, the world is a little bit smarter than it was when the other particle accelerators were built. A lot of people now have a basic understanding of what the atom is and how it works. They even have basic understanding of quantum mechanics. They know regular (or Newtonian) physics breaks down at the atomic level,which is when things then get a little wonky. Suddenly there are probabilities instead of certainties.
When you get down even further, to a subatomic level, things get really funky. They get so funky that even the best scientists in the world don’t understand it all. And that’s what really scares people. Steven Hawking can’t tell them, with exact certainty, what is going to happen when they switch on the Large Hadron Collider. So, the logic goes, it could be something bad. Something mysterious and powerful could happen that not even Steven Hawking understands. Trigger panic button!
The point is, people have at least reached a stage where they have a very basic understanding of particle physics. Even if the people in hysterics haven’t quite figured out that the the “God Particle” is just an ill-conceived nickname for the Higgs Boson, a particle that might help create a Grand Unified Theory; even if they haven’t quite figured out that the micro black holes that the LHC has a very small chance of creating aren’t star-sucking, light warping gravitational monsters, but rather fleeting quantum phenomena—they are at least demonstrating that they have learned something. Because earlier acclerators were so successful, we all know a lot more about the atom than we did when those particle accelerators were constructed thirty years ago.
According to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion Theory, we are moving from dim awareness of the technology to forming an opinion about it. As the debate goes on, eventually more and more people will better understand and accept the technology, especially when the LHC is finally up and running and nothing catastrophic happens. My prediction is that by this time next year, the fear and debate over the LHC will be nothing more than a quaint, funny memory, like Y2K, or when many people freaked out over Google Street View last year. In the process, as a culture, we will learn more about subatomic particles and quantum mechanics.
This cultural dialogue, a powerful feedback loop, is central to our relationship with technology. Technology contributes to our knowledge which, in turn, we use to create more complex technology, which further enhances our intelligence. It is not, nor has it ever been, merely technology that changes or evolves,it is also us. Those that complain that Google is making us stupid, lament the change that the technology has brought us and our new dependence on it, while overlooking the fact that we have become dependent on the technology precisely because it was better than the old way of getting information.
Google is an amplification of yesterday’s information retrieval methods, which will allow technology to advance more quickly. A comparison can thus be made to particle accelerators, the first of which taught scientists about the inner workings of the atom. Those scientists disseminated their findings through books, NOVA specials, documentaries and websites (remember, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide web while working at a CERN lab.) Eventually, physicists learned so much about the atom from particle accelerators that they needed to build a bigger one to learn more. So they built the LHC.
But because of all those NOVA specials we are now concerned about what will happen when we smash a particle too hard. Complexity, power and ubiquity are all signs a technology is working, as overwhelming as it might seem. When the hysteria over the LHC dies down, we’ll take the benefits, assimilate the knowledge, get smarter and move forward – just as we always have… until the next technology comes along.