World survives media Big Bang experiment scare

By staff writers
10 Sep 2008

The Earth remains intact after the start of the largest particle physics experiment ever conducted, at CERN in Switzerland, following high profile scares that it might destroy the world - a sign, say academics, of the media's "science illiteracy".

One key aim is to find the Higgs boson, the so-called "god particle" that some theorists believe give matter its mass.

The experiment, which began at around 8.30 BST today, but whose full implications will not be known for two years, is being conducted by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) with global support.

It involves using the £5 billion Large Hadron Collider housed in a 27 kilometre underground tunnel located on the Swiss-French border, which is designed to smash particles together with cataclysmic force.

This will re-create conditions moments after the Big Bang, some 13.7 million years ago, enabling physicists to understand what the Universe was made of billionths of a second after the explosion of the singularity that gave rise to all matter.

The vast circular tunnel, the "ring", contains more than 1,000 cylindrical magnets arranged end-to-end.

These are there to steer a beam made up of protons. Eventually, two proton beams will be steered in opposite directions around the Collider at close to the speed of light, completing some 11,000 laps each second. At allotted points around the tunnel, the beams will cross paths, smashing together near four massive detectors. It is hoped that new sub-atomic particles will emerge, revealing fundamental insights into the nature of the cosmos.

But apart from technical and funding difficulties with the three-year project, which late last night was facing problems with the cooling system needed for an event using such vast amounts of electricity, the Collider experiment attarcted lurid media stories about its threat to the world.

Right up until this morning, news agencies and other outlets continued to give credence to scare stories, with ITN in Britain claiming that "Leading physicists are set to go ahead with a Big Bang experiment despite warnings it could destroy the universe."

But scientists said claims the experiment would create black holes of intense gravity that could implode the Earth, or that it would "open the way for beings from another universe to invade through a worm hole in space-time" were "pure crankery" and "illustrate the profound ignorance of science still bouncing around the press and colliding into fact."

A careful safety review at CERN, in the USA and in Russia rejected such speculation.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia, commented: "We live in a world hugely dependent on science, and sometimes tempted towards dogmatically thinking that scientific endeavour can exhaust all quest for human knowledge - yet at the same time, the public struggles to understand how science works, the media is prey to sensationalist nonsense, and people remain superstitious about things they don't comprehend."

He added: "The reference to the Higgs boson as 'the god particle' shows, in a casual way, that scientific illiteracy can be matched by a theological kind. This assumes that God is some alien intrusion or explanatory theory being squeezed into the 'natural order' or, alternatively, being rendered redundant by it. Rather, to speak of God's creativity is to speak of the whole fabric of life, not certain bits of it or "holes" within it, as gift rather than manipulation."

According to the predominant current theory, particles acquire their mass through interactions with an all-pervading field carried by the Higgs boson.

Latest astronomical observations suggest that ordinary matter - such as the galaxies, gas, stars and planets - makes up just 4 per cent of the Universe. The rest is dark matter (23 per cent) and dark energy (73 per cent). Physicists think the CERN experiment could provide clues about the nature of this mysterious "stuff".

But Professor Jim Virdee, a particle phycist from Imperial College in the University of London, told BBC News: "Nature can surprise us... we have to be ready to detect anything it throws at us."

Others, such as Professor Stephen Hawking from Oxford, remain scpetical. He declared: ""The [Collider] will increase the energy at which we can study particle interactions by a factor of four. According to present thinking, this should be enough to discover the Higgs particle."

But he added: "I think it will be much more exciting if we don't find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again. I have a bet of 100 dollars that we won't find the Higgs."

One thing all are agreed on is that the world is unlikely to end at CERN. Hawking commented: ""Collisions at these and greater energies occur millions of times a day in the Earth's atmosphere, and nothing terrible happens."

Dr Robert Amyar, who heads up CERN, added: "The Collider is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction."

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More on the CERN experiment from the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7604293.stm

From Ekklesia on religion and science: 'Theology, science and the problem of ID' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6707 and 'What difference does God make today?', section 2 - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/4921

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