‘Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t**t.’


This week is Big Bang Week at the BBC, with various programmes devoted to the switch-on of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on Wednesday morning.  Many of these programmes are covered in this week’s issue of the Radio Times—the BBC’s listings magazine—which also features a short interview with Professor Brian Cox, chair of particle physics at the University of Manchester. Asked about concerns that the LHC could destroy the earth, he replies:

‘The nonsense you find on the web about “doomsday scenarios” is conspiracy theory rubbish generated by a small group of nutters, primarily on the other side of the Atlantic.  These people also think that the Theory of Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy and that America didn’t land on the Moon.  Both are more likely, by the way, than the LHC destroying the world.  I’m slightly irritated, because this non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes things like intelligent design. [… A]nyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t.’ (Final word censored by Radio Times.) [1]

Who counts as a nutter and a t**t on this reckoning?  It is true that anyone who thinks there is a 100% chance that the LHC will definitely destroy the world is confused—but it’s probably also true that not many people really think this.  On the other hand, if anyone who thinks that it is worth taking seriously the (admittedly very slim) possibility that the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t, then there are many apparently very clever t**ts knocking about in our universities.  Among these are several of my colleagues: Nick Shackel has previously blogged about the risks of turning on the LHC, as has Toby Ord; and Rafaela Hillerbrand, Toby Ord, and Anders Sandberg recently presented on this topic at the recent Future of Humanity Institute-hosted conference on Global Catastrophic Risks. And, despite having chatted to each of these people about the LHC at some point or another, I’ve never heard any of them express sympathy for the view that the Theory or Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy or that nobody landed on the Moon.  So, are they t**ts or not?

Caution about the LHC may anger Professor Cox because it is ‘symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science’, but the readers he influences may oppose it for less lofty reasons.  In response to a news story in March about a couple of LHC critics in the US who have launched a lawsuit to prevent CERN from switching it on, public comments included, ‘These people are totally off the wall’, ‘This is science, not science fiction’, ‘This is possibly the dumbest lawsuit I have ever heard’, ‘So what!’, and ‘Y’know this sounds like the same sort of stupid idiotic crap you’d hear back in the early ages of the steam engine’.  None of the commenters quoted appear to have any knowledge of the risks involved in running the LHC, and so it seems plausible that their opposition to the lawsuit stems from little more than a judgment that the belief that the LHC might destroy the world is a bit silly. 

Silliness-aversion is not confined to internet discussion boards. It is present in academia too.  Robin Hanson and Anders Sandberg have remarked that various research topics—such as discovering whether aliens exist and guarding against the threat of zombified robots—seem to be given a wide berth by researchers, not because they are unpromising or unimportant, but because they are too silly. That serious issues might be neglected by intelligent people because of a pervasive view that they are silly is disturbing, to say the least. Those who are qualified to engage in (and get paid for) academic research typically have years of experience of defending their views against sophisticated and sometimes ferocious criticism, and that they are capable of being cowed by the prospect of being sniggered at seems almost unbelievable.  It is especially incredible when we consider that most of us, if asked, would no doubt insist that if you truly believe that something is worth doing, you should ignore the mockery of others and go ahead and do it: this sentiment is drummed into us as children, and is immortalised in endless fairy tales and movies like Billy Elliot.  Academics, then, should really know better.

But then, so should anyone.  If we expect a child to rise above his classmates’ sniggering when he takes up ballet or stamp collecting, surely an adult should be capable of doing the same when she is called a t**t for worrying about the destruction of the earth?  Professor Cox seems to be urging those who oppose the LHC to stop listening to the nutters, use some intelligence, and get behind it.  However, there is just as strong a case for urging those who have got behind it to stop listening to the bullies, use some intelligence, and give some serious consideration to whether they should  oppose it.

Added later: [1] Professor Cox has posted a response to this quotation here.

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  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    twit,test,tent,trot,tart,tint,taut,text,that,tilt,tort,tact,teat,toot,taft,tout – which of these words can’t be spoken in polite company? It would of course help us to evaluate craziness if folks would assign probabilities to such beliefs. I’d say 10^-30 is crazier than 10^-5 here.

  • Peter

    The word was twat, I believe. It’s a colloquial term for ****.

  • George Weinberg

    In the followup link Cox writes “tw*t”, so that narrows down the possibilities. I think Peter is probably right, I very much doubt he would censor “twit”.

    I think there is a nontrivial probability that some future experiment will destroy the world. But if scientific progress ceases, a catastrophe in the relatively near future is a virtual certainty.

  • http://jewishatheist.blogspot.com JewishAtheist

    I think it would be awesome if a politician got up and said, “Anybody who thinks my opponent would be a good X is a twat.” That’s always the subtext anyway, right? 🙂

  • http://drchip.wordpress.com/ retired urologist

    In a post titled Overcoming Disagreement, Hal Finney advises (wisely): “consider taking actions which may accustom you to similar losses of status as you would experience from changing your mind in a disagreement. These might include making frequent, falsifiable predictions, many of which will inevitably turn out to be wrong; commenting on issues even where you are not too knowledgeable; sharing your speculations and thoughts even when you expect that they will lead to criticism. Air the dirty laundry of your mind, expose your ideas with all their unpolished flaws. In a world where most people build up a false front and do their best to hide their weaknesses, these honest actions can paradoxically make you seem mentally inferior. Such exercises can hopefully prepare you emotionally for being able to honestly report your changes of mind in disagreements.” I’m going to take his advice, and go “outside”.

    The Sept. 5, 2008 edition of New Scientist magazine features the LHC. It notes that it is momentarily to be up and running, perhaps yielding significant results in less than one year. Advances are expected so rapidly that there is already a scheduled shut-down for upgrades in 6 years. It has involved the collusion of around 6,000 “scientists”, the cooperation of about 35 countries, and somewhere between 6 and 8 billion USD. It is said by some to have the possibility to end the world.

    Compare the “Singularity” and fAI. A recent post said that missing some timely donations would jeopardize SIAI’s work (or existence?), and half the listed parties of SIAI research believe that it can be done safely and effectively only by one individual. It is said by some to have the possibility to end the world.

    One approach is already on-line. Surely if “the Singularity” is the most important advance since the first chemical replicators, it deserves our best minds working together, funded without limit. I already know the core response to this on this blog, but I’ve got to take Hal’s advice.

  • Fritz Tegularius

    Prof. Cox: Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat.

    Ms. Roache: if anyone who thinks that it is worth taking seriously the (admittedly very slim) possibility that the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t, then there are many apparently very clever t**ts knocking about in our universities.

    The only way that the second paragraph above relates to the first is by misinterpreting the first and not reading the words carefully.

    Thinking the LHC will destroy the world is a very different thing than thinking it is possible or that there is a small probability of it occurring. I’d argue that it is only accurate to say “thinks it will happen” if the person thinks it more likely than not (estimates greater than 50% probability) that it will happen. That is what Cox’s quote is talking about in my opinion, not somebody who thinks there is a 0.1% chance.

    Do any of the people mentioned as clever think it is more likely than not? If not, then they are obviously not the target of Cox’s remark.

  • notsayinjustsayin

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1626728.ece

    can mr. ‘cocks’ comment on this credibility enhancement fact please?

  • Dihymo

    @notsayinjustsayin:

    That seems more like a design flaw than a danger caused by hubris and creating black holes. The latter is the main reason people freak out. They think black holes will suck you in. If you don’t put your foot in it it won’t bite. But people do not understand the concept of model, theory, structure, etc. They simply associate black hole with bad. They don’t even care what has to happen to make it dangerous.

    There is no way a black hole at the relativistic mass of many subatomic particles can do anything in a vacuum. If it could the electrons making my laptop function would all be black holes.

    Speaking of which, anyone do a model of what happens when a photon visits an electron at its Schwarzchild radius? Suppose that photon is particularly energetic, like say equivalent to 1 or more electron rest masses. Just curious.

  • sayinwhatever

    “there is no way” ? you are basing this statement on what? a theory for which they need to fire up the collider to PROVE it first? all the scientists interviewed for this projects are very ‘qualitative’ about the outcomes. lots of ‘should’, ‘maybe’ and ‘given that’.

    what I’m saying is when there is a 10^-x chance you are going to wipe out life on earth, even if you start a process that may take 1000’s of years, you better be damn sure you mount those fucking magnets tight. high brow physicists.

    I also asked a respected scientist a question on this board about who’s financing the $10bln cost for this hunch, but I got treated with a royal silence. happy great filter passage to you.

  • steven

    Does anyone know whether the creation of baby universes at LHC can be ruled out 100%? If not then it seems like an additional important ethics issue that’s been ignored.

  • steven

    (And if so then there’s probably some sort of argument that it happens naturally already, but maybe there isn’t and it seems like something philosophers should think about first.)

  • miss hurst

    Professor Brian Cox.
    I completey agree that we should explore the effects of the feared outcomes of these experiments.
    HOWEVER it should be carried out underground, on mars ! Where our valuble lives can ‘even slighty’ be risked.

  • Dihymo

    Sayinwhatever, Steve, miss hurst:

    It’s impossible in the sense that you can’t get in a car accident if you are not in the car to drive it. A black hole, even with the relativistic mass of many particles, still sits in a vacuum given the way these particles are aimed at each other. It can’t grow if nothing gets near it.

    /black holes do not suck. They trap.

    When you think of a black hole, think of a bear trap, not a hole in a balloon.

  • steven

    The variant I vaguely remember reading about involved magnetic monopoles, not black holes.

  • http://blog.greenideas.com botogol

    I liked Seamus McCauley’s theory: the LHC WILL destroy the universe, but it is actually an attempt to smoke out God / the aliens / the software admins who will surely have to step out from the shadows and put a stop to it. HT

  • Ben Jones

    When you think of a black hole, think of a bear trap, not a hole in a balloon.

    Really? I prefer thinking of one of those curved vortex things you roll coins into. Has the nice added analogy that once the coins plop in the hole, you can’t see what’s inside….

  • Boris Vladimirov

    What a beautiful end, just like in a Vonnegut book – reaching the threshold of knowledge to achieve unlimited life extension, mankind blows it all up via its inborn ignorance of the significance of a small probability exponential process.

    I think that this is a much more elegant End than a nuclear war, as it is very egalitarian and guarantees that there are no survivors to suffer.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/rebeccaroache/ Rebecca Roache

    Peter is certainly right about t**t — the confusion here suggests to me that, whilst it’s a common British word, it’s unfamiliar to Americans. It’s not as rude as c**t, despite having the same meaning. Level of rudeness probably falls somewhere between ‘bollocks’ and ‘f**k’. Enough about swear words! 😀

    Fritz, your interpretation of Cox is perfectly plausible. It’s difficult to assess the precise intended meaning of such a flippant remark. However, exactly whom he *intended* to label t**ts is not important given the point I wished to make, which was that people seem to be influenced to adopt (or avoid adopting) a certain view at least partly because of the social connotations that go along with it. Whether comments like Cox’s have this influence depends more on its interpretation by his audience than on his own intended meaning. The capacity of people to be influenced by apparently irrelevant factors when thinking about issues like the LHC is, I think, at least as disturbing as the prospect of the LHC being switched on!

    Steven: ‘Does anyone know whether the creation of baby universes at LHC can be ruled out 100%? If not then it seems like an additional important ethics issue that’s been ignored.’ I’m not sure many would seriously subscribe to the view that any catastrophic event that can’t be ruled out 100% counts as an important ethical issue. Such events can quickly be multiplied beyond our capacity to give them ethical consideration.

    I’d be interested to hear people’s views about what underlies concern about the LHC. Is it really down to cost benefit analysis, or to something else?

  • steven

    OK, so where I said “100%” make it “99.9999%”, say. Here’s a New Scientist article discussing universe creation in the lab that specifically mentions LHC; it definitely seems to say it’s very implausible but I can’t tell from the article whether it’s impossible unless you actively try for it by doing stuff beyond what they’re going to do at LHC, or just unlikely. I also can’t tell whether this is something that would already happen naturally due to cosmic rays (which do reach the same energies, but other details may matter for all I know); even if not then the most obvious kinds of utilitarianism probably say it doesn’t matter relative to the possibility of baby universes being produced in much greater numbers in the future; but still, what about e.g. variants that say to maximize the probability of infinite positive utility and/or minimize the probability of infinite negative utility?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/placain/ Daniel Drucker
  • josh

    Ha! I had the same issue Robin did. My guess had been “toot”, which was not a very good guess.

  • http://www.votetheday.com votetheday.com

    Gosh, it’s just a big atom smasher, and the possibility of something dangerous to happen is too small for that something to happen 😉 If it would have been real risk, scientists would inform us, or take measures against it, or, after all, never would have thought of taking this idea to reality. So stop worrying, listen to common sense and do not let this rumor by fools take over your mind.
    http://www.votetheday.com/polls/worlds-largest-particle-accelerator-experiment-214/

  • http://avturchin.narod.ru/Global.htm Alexei Turchin

    On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders
    http://arxiv.org/abs/0808.1415

    This article suggests new view on the LHC risk. In some occasions, if some theories are true the Black hole could be created, and when start to shine by strong Hawking radiation. And in some condition the ammount of the matter it eat and amount of radiation could be equal.
    This radiation could be 12 megatonn per second
    , or 1/3 of sun energy which is coming on Earth. It will result on huge explosion on the LHC, but the Earth will not be destroid because soon (in seconds)this BH will receive high velosity and fly from the earth to space.

    So only France is doomed 🙁

  • Ashlee

    no one thought the titanic would sink the first time either

    🙂

  • MarcH

    There’s a slight difference between the hubris of a shipping company and 6000 scientists that want to live (well, lets say 99.99% want to live)

    As well, the earth and every astronomical body in the solar system are already conducting their own informal LHC style experiments in form of cosmic rays.

    Super high energy particles being slammed into the surface of the earth every day. Some are at millions of times greater energy than the collisions in the LHC ever will be.

  • Abigail

    Professor Cox’s statement was not a rational communication, but an emotional one.

    I cannot understand the standard model, or string theory. I saw Professor Cox present a documentary about the LHC last week on TV. His enthusiasm is infectious: the LHC is the place in the World where he most wants to be. He is an attractive man in his thirties, appearing more youthful.

    I picked up from that documentary that current theories postulate sixteen subatomic particles, and that string theory explains what we know but cannot make predictions which can be tested by observation.

    Even if I took an undergraduate degree in the relevant discipline, I still might not understand all the issues around whether the LHC might destroy the World. The energy I have to expend to come to my own informed decision is far too great. So I listen to experts, and take them on trust.

    In this context, Professor Cox’s emotional communication communicated to me. I would not insult anyone who tells me that the LHC might destroy the world, but neither would they influence my actions.

  • Ben Jones

    I had to dodge around six micro black holes on my way to work today. Six! Anyone beat that?

  • MarcH

    No. I had thought one was following me, but I turned to get on the freeway and it went straight.

  • http://neuraltransmissions.wordpress.com MZ

    I must admit, I had trouble filling in the word t**t. It wasn’t the first word I thought of. It wasn’t even among the first ten words I thought of. I honestly had trouble filling it in. To me, twat has a very specific (if very obscene) definition. But really, who throws around a word like that so callously? I guess those of us on “this side of the Atlantic” are just that much more evolved than the Englishmen.

    But seriously, in my estimation, the chances of the LHC creating a black hole that swallows us all are about 100 orders magnitude HIGHER than the chances that all of the particles in my body will self-annihilate within 10 seconds of my writing this.

    If I ever post again, I guess I will prove my point.