Fearmongering, or reasonable concern?

Ultimately, independent studies by two groups of physicists calculated that the chances of this catastrophe were negligible, based on astronomical evidence and assumptions about the physics of the strangelets. One report put the odds of a strangelet disaster at less than one in 50 million, less than a chance of winning some lottery jackpots.

OK, here are my problems with this assurance of “negligible” chances of catastrophe:

  1. Based on “assumptions about the physics of strangelets”. So if those assumptions are wrong, the odds could be a whole lot better.
  2. “Less than the chance of winning some lottery jackpots” is syntactically the same as “greater than the chance of winning some lottery jackpots”. Add to that the slight fact that there is no lottery in existence in which the jackpot was not eventually won, and you can quickly see why long odds are no comfort to me.

Dr. Kent, in a 2003 paper, used the standard insurance company method to calculate expected losses to explore how stringent this bound on danger was. He multiplied the disaster probability times the cost, in this case the loss of the global population, six billion. A result was that, in actuarial terms, the Rhic collider could kill up to 120 people in a decade of operation.

Acceptable losses in the name of scientific advancement? It’s certainly far fewer deaths per decade than automobile deaths per… what… day? week? But does that make it OK? Nazi Germany made huge scientific advances at a horrific cost. The statistical loss of 120 in a decade seems small by comparison – a mere one person per month. But would we accept scientific advancement if we were literally butchering one person per month to achieve it? Of course, in this case we’re doing no such thing. The Large Hadron Collider will likely either kill nobody, or kill everybody. There will not be any gradual cost to pay, and likewise no future point at which we can reconsider our wisdom. We won’t be able to say “well, strangelets caused a few deaths in the lab today, let’s shut down”. These people are talking about potentially killing the entire planet in a stroke.

On the bright side, if something goes wrong, we won’t really care, will we? I’m just wondering what exactly we’re hoping to gain that’s worth this kind of risk. I don’t understand what makes the gamble worthwhile.

Of course, anything a newspaper says should be taken with a grain of salt, but the problem is that the common person (as well as a great many uncommon people) have no idea what the risks (or rewards) really are. A very small group of physicists are playing with potentially very deadly stuff, and the rest of us just carry on in very blissful ignorance until some journalist dumbs everything down to our level so that we can fret about it. So do the fearful and ignorant populace storm the place with pitchforks and torches? Or should we trust these people? I love scientific advances, but this stuff just makes me a bit nervous.

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  • Jay  On April 16, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Similar things were said about the first nuke (it’ll set the atmosphere on fire!) and just about every bigger collider ever made.

    Sure, I’d like the planet to stick around but if it doesn’t I won’t be upset for too long.

    Go on with your life. Nothing to see here.

    The question on this and most of the space program is what kind of return on investment to we get from this?

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