Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hadron Collider Kaleidoscope: Is Humanity At Risk?

On September 10, 2008, the Hadron Collider (located in an underground tunnel in France and Switzerland) fired two protons that traveled 27 kilometers (17 miles). The protons were traveling clockwise; in a few months additional protons will be sent counterclockwise. The goal is to re-create the conditions immediately after the "Big Bang", an enormous explosion that created the Universe. If successful, scientists will see the astronomical equivalent of the missing link, the "god particle."

"Just be very careful that you do not misspell 'Hadron', by reversing the inner letters."

This project could be a miracle of friendly collaboration between international scientists, and the greatest technological experiment in human history. Or, it could be a playtoy for intellectuals, a vain exercise to swell the egos of researchers. Is there any proof of the latter theory? Just be very careful that you do not misspell "Hadron", by reversing the inner letters.

After the protons completed their journey, project leader Lyn Evans said: "My first thought was relief. This is a machine of enormous complexity. Things can go wrong at any time. But this morning has been a great start."

Asked whether this experiment could create any hazard to humanity, the chief spokesman for the project replied: "It's nonsense."

Yet, this is a machine of "enormous complexity." Projects of this scale should be coordinated and approved by an international body of scientists who are trained in a branch of philosophy that might be called "Technology Ethics." The goal would be to ensure that the technology is safe and humanizing, that the new technology has far more potential for good than harm.

There is no governing body, of course. But there are voices crying in the techno-wilderness. These voices (the saner among them) do not question progress (which is essential), they question the goals of scientific progress. Not everything that can be done, should be done. Not everything new is an improvement. We must make every reasonable effort to ensure that the light at the end of the tunnel is not the beam of an oncoming train.

One highly-regarded scientist who has asked us to pause and to reflect, is the Royal Astronomer of Great Britan, Martin Rees. His book (published in 2005 and reviewed below) advises us to be aware of dangers, consequences, and unintended effects.

Our Final Hour
A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future In This Century -- on Earth and Beyond
by Martin Rees
Published by Basic Books, Paperback, $ 15; Hardcover, $ 25

Reviewed by Michael Pastore

In the heart of his Journals, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote these anxious words:

"Thank God men cannot yet fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth. We are safe on that side for the present. It is for the very reason that. some do not care for these things [the natural world] that we need to combine to protect all from the vandalism of a few."

Even the prescient genius of Thoreau could not imagine how briefly we would saunter on that safe side. Had he lived to the age of 86, Thoreau would have seen the first manned flight in a power airplane, in 1903, by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Twelve years later, the German engineer Hugo Junkers constructed the first gas-engine airplane designed for war.

Technology advances breathlessly, with unexpected speed, never pausing to consider how the exciting discoveries of today will impact the quality of human life tomorrow. A new book that tackles this issue with balance, integrity and insight is Martin Rees's Our Final Hour.

If the author's name rings a bell, it might be for his one his earlier books, or it might be that you've been following the future on a website named Longbets. Check in to that site -- at http://www.longbets.org/predictions -- and you will see that Rees has made a prediction which tops the list, because it has generated the most response. Rees is willing to bet one thousand dollars that by the year 2020, "bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event."

Before reading Rees's book, I had five main areas concerns for the world's future: nuclear war; global warming and the resultant species extinction; overpopulation; the spread of AIDS; and the growing wealth gap between the very rich and the very poor.

"Although the odds of disaster are small, the risks are extremely high ... "

Our Final Hour explains and explores threats to survival which are less publicized and potentially more hazardous. The first threat -- which astonished me completely -- is the danger of experiments in particle physics. Scientists enjoy watching heavy atoms crash against each other, which breaks these atoms into smaller particles, and releases energy. Although the odds of disaster are small, the risks are extremely high: physicists have discussed that there is a possibility that these experiments could "rip the fabric of space itself" -- and create a vacuum that would suck in and destroy not only the Earth, but the entire galaxy. This explains the book's subtitle, how our technology threatens not only all Earthly life, but things beyond the Earth.

Another promising but perilous development -- the benefits of which have received loads of mawkish praise -- is known as nanotechnology. Atoms will be assembled into complex machines smaller than molecules, machines that might build things, replicate themselves, or travel inside the human body to perform microsurgery. Rees states that these devices "could have disastrous or even uncontrollable consequences if misapplied." Nanobots might replicate themselves unendingly, and devour everything in their paths. Something akin to the Star Trek episode "The Trouble With Tribbles."

In the next decades, the most pressing of all dangers will be the threat of bioterror and bioerror. Rees argues that these threats are imminent because -- unlike detonating a nuclear warhead -- it takes only one deranged or incompetent person -- one person alone -- to create and release the lethal weapon (bio-organisms) that could kill millions.

The everyday news is providing even more strength for Rees's claims. After the book was published, an envelope containing ricin was found in the U.S. Senate, which closed the Senate for a day on February 4, 2004. Ricin can be concocted easily from castor oil seeds, with a recipe located on the Internet. Ingesting a mere ten micrograms of ricin is fatal.

Just six days later, on February 10, the New York Times printed a story about the U.S. government plans to spend 1.7 billion dollars to develop high-security "hot labs," to study and find antidotes for the world's deadliest germs and bio-weapons. Today, February 18, the news brings yet another example of technology gone awry. At an event designed to boast about Russia's military prowess -- a ballistic missile self-destructed a few seconds after being launched from a Russian submarine.

"The theme of this book," writes Rees, "is that humanity is more at risk than at any earlier phase in its history." And the heart of the work is the author's plea to create intelligent discussions about these issues, to question how to manage this new age abounding in knowledge, and rife with crackpots who would unthinkingly apply this knowledge to murder their enemies. Rees states that scientists alone should not be the ones to decide whether or not to pursue dangerous experiments: the general public must be educated to make informed decisions.

Our Final Hour is far more than another trumpet of approaching Doomsday, it is a wise and sane call for science and technology to serve humanity, not to enslave us. Science must advance not recklessly, but with the utmost caution, planning, and responsibility.

--Michael Pastore

== Story Links: Hadron Collider News (after this post was written) ==

Collider halted until next year