Scientists are getting ready to flip the switch on the largest science experiment ever conducted on Earth -- the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN.
The LHC is a 27-kilometer ring located in the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland, around which high-energy protons will be smashed together in two counter-rotating beams. More than 1,000 magnets will keep the beams -- each containing millions of protons -- on a circular path around the collider, while hundreds more keep the beams focused. The beams will travel at almost the speed of light.
What's the point? To replicate as closely as possible conditions in the universe immediately after the Big Bang, and to search for the elusive Higgs boson, an undiscovered particle that is required for physics' Standard Model to work. The Higgs boson -- popularized as "God's particle" -- was theorized in 1964 by Peter Higgs and independently by a number of other physicists.
Public Fear and Worry
The LHC experiments may enable scientists to observe a number of theorized aspects of the early universe. For one thing, 96 percent of the universe consists of so-called dark matter and dark energy. "They are incredibly difficult to detect and study, other than through the gravitational forces they exert. Investigating the nature of dark matter and dark energy is one of the biggest challenges today in the fields of particle physics and cosmology," CERN explained on its Web site.
The experiments may even be able to detect whether extra dimensions of space exist, as theorized by the "string theory" in theoretical physics.
But the collider has been the subject of intense fear among the public. Public-relations staffers at the LHC are receiving a flood of worried and angry phone calls and e-mails, reported James Gillies, head of PR for the collider. Nobel prize winner Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has even received death threats, according to the BBC.
Black Holes and Stranglets
"They phone me and say: "I am seriously worried. Please tell me that my children are safe," Gillies told the BBC. "There are a number who say: 'You are evil and dangerous and you are going to destroy the world.'" Gillies said the concerns are "nonsense," adding, "What we are doing is enriching humanity, not putting it at risk."
The concerns are nothing less than a total doomsday scenario. The anti-LHC hysteria was started by Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho, who filed suit in U.S. and European courts to stop the LHC. Their theory is that the LHC will produce micro black holes and "stranglets" that may not decay as rapidly as mainstream physics predicts.
"Any miniature black hole created at rest in a collider would essentially be trapped in Earth's gravitational field, and over seconds to hours, slowly interact and acquire more mass," Wagner says on his LHCDefense.org Web site.
'Destroying the World'
A number of safety studies conducted by CERN and independent physicists have concluded that the doomsday scenarios posited by Wagner and a few other researchers are fundamentally flawed, and there is virtually no chance the machine will produce matter-sucking phenomena.
Such assurances have failed to modify the hysterical, however, who have posted comments like these on various blogs and Web sites: "They can't destroy the world for just a few studies. We have to stop the large Hadron collider at any cost or we all are gonna die."
And: "When will the selfishness end?? i'm sick to death of hearing about scientists desperate to find the latest in things that don't really matter anymore!! ok, so if this thing went ok and we all didnt blow into smitherines, then yes, its going to be interesting for thos who have a basic understanding of anything this machine is to do with, but come on!"
What does the public reaction -- in its ignorance and intensity -- say about people's attitude toward science? "I believe that much of the public reaction to the LHC is grounded in a kind of ignorance that might be called 'Faith-Based Science,' or F-BS for short," said Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT Research.
At the same time, the public's willingness to believe left-field doomsday theories reveals a fundamental weakness in the scientific community's outreach efforts. "Sub-atomic physics isn't the easiest subject to discuss (let alone understand), but in order for people to appreciate the importance of science, they first need to understand how it will potentially improve their lives," King said.
The problem is not limited to theoretical physics but to "every form of technology," he added.