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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Irrationality threatens future of planet Earth

    Last week Britain’s Sun newspaper ran this sensationalist headline: “”End of the World Due in 9 Days.”” If you’re reading this column, though, then there’s good news: Earth has survived September 10, 2008, the ninth day. It has not been swallowed up by a black hole, as some people feared – and as some still fear.

    But there’s also some bad news: Idiots still run amok here on Earth.

    Yesterday scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, powered up the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator complex – and conducted a low-power trial run. Some believed this flip of the switch would doom us all.

    The science at CERN is fairly straightforward: by colliding protons around the 17-mile underground ring and studying the resultant debris, physicists hope to study the origins and workings of the universe. This aim sounds reasonable and harmless enough, but some activists from around the world are still up in arms over the alleged possibility that future full-power LHC experiments may create tiny black holes that could expand to apocalyptic proportions. Some have even taken legal action, including two American environmentalists and a German chemist, who fear that CERN’s experiments could have catastrophic consequences for the planet.

    CERN, however, denies that its facility or experiments pose any threat, and the vast majority of scientists concur. Time magazine reports, “”CERN published a safety report, reviewed by a group of external scientists, ruling out the possibility of dangerous black holes. It said that even if tiny black holes were to be formed at CERN – a big if – they would evaporate almost instantaneously due to Hawking Radiation.”” I’m not sure whose corner you stand in, but I’m sticking with Stephen Hawking and his cohorts.

    The tepid controversy surrounding the LHC and its associated experiments is only the latest in a string of cases that demonstrate the rift between science and the obtuse public at large. For example, scientists and doctors referred to magnetic resonance imaging as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging in its early days, but a dense public misunderstood “”nuclear”” to mean “”radioactive,”” not “”pertaining to the nucleus of an atom.”” Society viewed this new life-saving technology as a harmful tool on the basis on one word. A “”scary”” word should not panic us, but it often does. What’s worse, this panic is often highly contagious, spreading faster than the flu. But a knowledgeable and open-minded public would eliminate many of the misunderstandings that occur when novel ideas and scientific breakthroughs enter the fray.

    Sadly, this misunderstanding of “”nuclear”” continues even today, some 30 years after MRI technology burst onto the scene. CERN officials refer to the laboratory as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, even though the bulk of the research is nuclear-based and its French name contains the word “”nuclear,”” i.e. the “”N”” in CERN. Public perception is everything these days, and a “”nuclear”” laboratory would scare the hell out of people, especially in Switzerland, a historically neutral country. Heck, a confused George W. would probably invade Switzerland in a moment of sheer panic.

    Politicians best exemplify the mainstream distortion of science. President George W. Bush has expressed skepticism on the question of evolution, saying in August 2005 that creationism should be taught alongside it. Yet he also said, in November 2005, that “”If the (bird flu) virus were to develop the capacity for sustained human-to-human transmission, it could spread quickly across the globe.”” So there you have it: evolution exists and then it doesn’t. Thus evolution faces this same problem of connotation in the public’s mind: Is it just a “”theory?”” Science and its theories, as a general rule, tend to be more concrete than Bush would have you believe.

    Gov. Sarah Palin, too, likes her science with a spoonful of fiction. Answering a question about global warming, the Republican vice presidential nominee said she isn’t one “”who would attribute it to being man-made.”” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on the other hand, disagrees with her assessment. In 2007 the scientific body deemed global warming “”very likely”” the result of human-induced increases in greenhouse gas concentrations. Simply put, we need to get our science directly from reputable sources, not from agenda-driven politicos.

    The problem isn’t that a man-made black hole is going to consume the earth. The real issue is mankind’s inability to understand science in an intelligent way – as a tool in our arsenal and as a way to understand the world around us. Our collective fear of reason and science must end; otherwise, the world will be devoured by our own absurdity and irrationality.

    – Justin Huggins is a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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