Material from this post features in Chapter 2.4 of Smashing Physics.
Hopefully this is a dead issue for most people and the last thing I want to do is reignite a debate, but there are still people out there who should know better (you know who you are), still frightening people who don’t know better.
So: imagine doing something new, for the first time. Say a new experiment. Say, oh I don’t know, the LHC. Or RHIC, or the Tevatron, or one of the previous machines some people have got agitated about. Then take the worst consequence imaginable, even if it is in contradiction to all experimental evidence, theory and even logic. Science has a hard time proving a negative, so you might conclude that there is an infinitesimally small chance of the bad thing happening and be inclined not to go ahead. But before deciding you have a duty to consider also the risk of not doing it.
The year is 2125 AD and the Earth has a serious problem. A rogue planet, drifting through the spiral arm of our galaxy, has just been detected via several innovative astronomical techniques involving gravitational wave detectors and observations from our deep-space telescope system. The planet is on course to enter the solar system and is massive enough to seriously disrupt the orbits of the planets. Many-body quantum gravity calculations, using the detailed knowledge we have accumulated of the masses and trajectories of our “local” environment indicate a near certainty that one result of this disruption will be to send the Earth crashing into the Sun within two decades.
Fortunately these observations and calculations have given the inhabitants of Earth enough warning. Using the latest antimatter fuel cells, a small robot ship is sent to the planet. Once on the planet, nanobots assemble a mini-black-hole factory which is used provide a small but steady and powerful warp drive, diverting the planet away from the solar system into a cosmological near-miss. Party time.
The year is 2145 AD and the Earth has a serious problem. There’s no one to help the Earth because its most intelligent species wiped itself out in a nuclear armaggedon/global climate catastrophe/whatever the next one is. The Earth mostly bounced back from this and is still a marvellous cradle of life, until a rogue planet sends it spiralling into the Sun in the mother of all environmental catastrophes.
The year is 2135 AD and the Earth has a serious problem. A rogue planet, drifting through the spiral arm of our galaxy, has just been detected. The planet is on course to enter the solar system and is massive enough to seriously disrupt the orbits of the planets. Calculations using all the knowledge we have of the masses and trajectories of our “local” environment indicate a possibility that one result of this disruption will be to send the Earth crashing into the Sun within a few years.
Unfortunately there’s not a lot we can do about it. The warning came a bit late, and anyway we still do not even know whether there is a Higgs or extra dimensions and mini-black holes, so we have no suitable power sources to get us to the planet and no way of dealing with the threat even if we did. We spend five years moping about the foolishness of the “safety first” legal ruling with made us turn off the LHC back in 2010, as well as the similar rulings which followed on new experimentation across many fields of physical and life sciences. Then we crash into the Sun.
The Risk of Inaction
The above scenarios are of course three amongst infinitely many tiny possibilities. However, anyone who advocates stopping research because of imagined doomsday scenarios should also be made to estimate the risks associated with stopping the research, and the doomsday scenarios we might thus be exposed to. Otherwise they might be suspected of being a twatTM.
Oh, and anyone who thinks they can pick research winners in terms of “impact”, or thinks that trying to understand how the universe works is navel gazing might also want to think about it.
[Note added 4/4/2010: Al Jazeera still give them airtime *sigh*. Although the phrase “enough rope” springs to mind.]
[Note added 5/4/2010 (but should have been added earlier!): This post helped inspire this Discovery Science article by Ian O’Neill.]