I see they're going to fire up the Large Hadron Collider at half power. For those who haven't been following this story, your life is being put at risk.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a project by The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN. Back in 1964, a physicist called Peter Higgs found an elegant mathematical theory by which he explained one of the great puzzles of particle physics, why mass exists.
There is some background to this question. The twentieth century produced two great theories of physics: relativity and quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics explained many curious puzzles in the subatomic realm, for example, why atoms don't collapse. Atoms have a field of electrons orbiting the nucleus; according to classical mechanics, any accelerating charged particle (like an electron orbiting an atom) should radiate energy. This means the electron should spiral into the nucleus and the atom should collapse. Obviously they don't because we are still here, made of functioning atoms! Another example is the radiation from black bodies. Only quantum theory can explain why the spectrum is what it is.
It is no exaggeration to say that the modern world only exists because of quantum mechanics: every piece of electronics that exists only works because of quantum mechanics, and a great deal of it was only discovered because we understood the theory behind it all. It is the most successful scientific theory ever. It has passed every experimental test ever thrown at it. But it doesn't explain gravity.
Relativity, on the other hand, has an answer to the gravity question: the bending of space-time. It is a classical theory: in it the world is continuous, not discrete; everything exists in one definite place; influences cannot travel faster than light; and so on. It also has some impressive evidence on its side, such as the unexplained shift in the perihelion of Mercury, and the bending of starlight around the sun, and the slowing of clocks in a gravitational field.
But these two theories are incompatible. One or the other must be wrong. So it is only natural that any theory that helps us make sense of this conundrum will have a huge emotional and curiosity attraction for scientists. So when Higgs proposed that mass came into existence because of a certain subatomic particle (later named by others the Higgs boson), searching for it became a top priority for many scientists. If the Higgs boson were discovered, it would allow us to clarify many of our ideas about basic physics.
Enter the Large Hadron Collider. At a cost of something like 4 billion Euros, the European Union is mounting a search for the Higgs boson. The problem is this:
Matter, from which everything in the Universe is made, is believed to have originated from a dense and hot cocktail of fundamental particles. Today, the ordinary matter of the Universe is made of atoms, which contain a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons, which in turn are made of quarks bound together by other particles called gluons. The bond is very strong, but in the very early Universe conditions would have been too hot and energetic for the gluons to hold the quarks together. Instead, it seems likely that during the first microseconds after the Big Bang the Universe would have contained a very hot and dense mixture of quarks and gluons called quark–gluon plasma.
The ALICE experiment will use the LHC to recreate conditions similar to those just after the Big Bang, in particular to analyse the properties of the quark-gluon plasma.
That's from the official CERN website. But is it safe to replicate the conditions of the early universe? Dangers include creating "strange matter" which would make the existence of ordinary matter like you and me impossible, and creating mini black holes, which, some say, might suck in the entire planet into a black hole.
Now I want to make one thing very clear here: CERN and almost every physicist on Earth, agree that these scenarios are highly unlikely; some say they cannot happen. And I agree with them.
However! If CERN, the world's scientists, and my humble self are wrong, the entire planet will be destroyed. Where I differ from CERN, the scientists, and the governments that approved this experiment is that I do not believe I have the moral right to risk the very existence of the planet on my assessment of this risk. When asked about this risk, CERN said something very odd indeed:
According to the well-established properties of gravity, described by Einstein’s relativity, it is impossible for microscopic black holes to be produced at the LHC. There are, however, some speculative theories that predict the production of such particles at the LHC. All these theories predict that these particles would disintegrate immediately. Black holes, therefore, would have no time to start accreting matter and to cause macroscopic effects.
Now hang on: One or the other or both of relativity or quantum mechanics must be wrong. Since QM is passing every single test ever thrown at it, it is at least a possibility (in fact I believe close to a certainty) that the wrong one is relativity. In fact, the very realm in which relativity does not work is the subatomic. So their argument might be reasonable in some circumstances, but in the context of whether we might destroy the only planet known to have life in all the universe, using an argument from relativity theory is hopelessly inadequate. Moving on, they then say that all the speculative (meaning disagreeing with the probably wrong theory of relativity) theories so far invented that allow mini black holes to form also predict their disintegration. So? What about speculative theories we haven't invented yet? Who says we have an understanding of physics so very good that we can stake the life of every person and every living creature upon it? And we don't even know which one of our two incompatible theories of basic physics is the wrong one—or if both of them are!
Again I have to remind readers that I am not alleging that the LHC will (or even likely will) destroy Earth. But I am alleging that there is an arrogance and an irresponsibility in building this machine merely to answer scientific curiosity. Yes, I want to know whether the Higgs boson exists as much as any other lover of science, but I don't put my curiosity ahead of the rights of others not to have their lives risked. Yes, the likelihood of error is small, perhaps extremely small, but the stakes are so very big. It might be a different matter if this experiment were needed to solve some problem that was in itself pressing, such as solving the controlled nuclear fusion problem, which would release us from dependence on fossil fuels. In that case not having the answer in itself causes harm, and the experiment would almost certainly reduce our exposure to harm. But that's not the case here.
Unfortunately we humans are congenitally handicapped in assessing low probabilities and big numbers. I have seen the risk of the LHC quoted as one in 50 million. I don't believe that these figures have a precise meaning, but let's run with it. With a world population of nine billion, the expected deaths—"expected" in the statistical sense—from turning on the LHC is the ratio of these numbers: 180. When the outcome is either none or a huge number, the expected outcome is largely meaningless, but what it does tell us is that if we did a very large number of experiments, each one as risky as the LHC, then the average death rate from each one would be about 180. Is 180 deaths, plus many times more animal deaths, worth it for more knowledge of physics? Is it even morally permissible? Some will say the "greater good" says yes, but if you look up the Principle of Goodness, which is the grounding moral vision for this site, according to which we must not deliberately harm even one innocent, you will know immediately that my answer is no.
Lastly, the cost of the LHC is in the same ballpark as the cost of experimental fusion reactors such as ITER. Yet fusion finds it hard to get funding, even in the current panic environment over fictitious anthropogenic global warming. We simply must find ways to deal with the fact that humans are such poor thinkers about the really big and the really unlikely.