Apocalypse Not Now

by Tony Rothman

Tony Rothman is Lecturer in Physics at Princeton University. His latest book is Firebird, a novel set in a fusion-research laboratory.

PRINCETON – Recently, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, located near Geneva at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) – announced that the celebrated discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson was indeed the Higgs boson. Now, the standard model of particle physics is complete, except for one important thing: black holes.

Four years ago, doomsayers forecast that the LHC would produce microscopic black holes that would swallow the Earth in a matter of months. The latter-day Nostradamuses provoked widespread fear, not to mention lawsuits, about high-energy particle physics experiments. 

These prophets were, of course, neither the first nor the last of their species. In 2000, their forebears predicted that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider would create weird hypothetical particles known as strangelets, which would quickly transform Earth into a hot, dense lump of strange matter. One needs hardly mention last year’s Mayan end-of-the-world carnival, which shares with the other no-show catastrophes roughly the same level of absurdity.

These prophesies share something else as well. Whenever an apocalyptic prediction fizzles, the doomsayers remain strangely silent – until the next opportunity to capture the public’s imagination. The new millennium did not bring down airplanes or knock out power grids; but no software engineer has confessed that the Y2K scare was a con – or at least a serious mistake – that cost the United States alone an estimated $300 billion. On the contrary, some have begun to warn that, in 2038, certain computer software and systems will experience “integer overflow,” causing them to report negative system times and, in turn, to fail. 

The interval between a doomsday prophecy’s fall and the rise of the next one evidently is decreasing, perhaps owing to the accelerating pace of modern life – and, with it, the acceleration of forgetting, which enables potential beneficiaries to capitalize. Last year’s misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar clearly helped – and was probably helped by – the proprietors of some Yucatan hotels, which reached 100% occupancy in the weeks surrounding the world’s projected end.

On the other hand, the rising incidence of false prophecy might equally reflect the increasing prevalence of charlatanism masquerading as science. Each time I publish a scientific essay, I attract the attention of a dozen self-proclaimed messiahs eager to impart their divinely inspired ideas, which invariably lack higher mathematics (or, in the case of the black-hole sentinels, rely on elevated but meaningless mathematics). Their conviction that they represent the Alpha and Omega of knowledge is as rigid as their scientific illiteracy. 

Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets are eager to provide a platform for fear-mongers. Doom sells; scientific empiricism, not so much. In an increasingly cutthroat media culture – in which falling behind a story is often considered worse than making a mistake – serious journalism has largely given way to infotainment and sensationalism. By neglecting to seek qualified sources to offset their understandable lack of expertise, journalists produce imprecise – even untrue – reports, and thus fail to guide public debate in a constructive direction.

For example, in 2008, the Russian physicist Grigory Vilkovisky claimed to have proved that black holes radiate away only about half of their mass – contrary to Stephen Hawking’s celebrated finding that they radiate away their entire mass. At the time, I wrote that, if Vilkovisky were correct, accepted ideas about black-hole physics would have to be radically altered, and “black holes created at CERN might actually survive long enough to be taken seriously.” While I intended only to suggest that the black holes would be considered seriously as a scientific phenomenon, my words were interpreted to mean that the black holes could pose a serious threat to Earth. 

Worse, the ensuing Internet debate centered on Vilkovisky’s credentials and mine – not on whether Vilkovisky was right or wrong. This defies the fundamentals of science, in which only data, principles, and mathematics – not ex cathedra arguments – are relevant.

Apocalyptic prophecies and the raucous festivities accompanying them are indisputably alluring. But imaginary cataclysms have real-world consequences. Scientists have been forced to expend valuable time and effort refuting the black-hole claims, while fighting the ongoing lawsuits aimed at preventing the LHC from operating has cost millions of dollars. The obsession with doomsday scenarios diverts attention from far more consequential scientific issues, such as securing nuclear power plants and developing safer methods for conducting biological research.

Courts are inadequate to settle such disputes. Proceedings are hamstrung by jurisdictional wrangling, and technical testimony often exceeds judges’ expertise. A Hague-like international tribunal or clearinghouse might be established to appoint impartial panels to hear each case, but significant investment would be required. 

In the meantime, scientists must engage public concerns, and journalists must strive for accuracy rather than controversy. Most important, prophets of doom should have to answer for their predictions – or at least forfeit a bottle of champagne – and those who promote their nonsense should be held accountable for their irresponsible behavior. Then maybe everyone else can get a good night’s sleep, confident that they will wake up the next morning.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2013.
www.project-syndicate.org

 




 


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