LHC + external controversies

06Sep10

Twitter is a useful engine. Not only does it provide me with up-to-date election news, but it last week it also directed me to this article about a court case over CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Thanks FermilabToday!

You know, I read this and didn’t really think about it in relation to my blog topic. When it was brought up in class, however, I thought again; of course it’s related, just in a different way to how I’ve been thinking. So far, I’ve mostly been thinking about controversies as disputes over observations and alternative theories stemming from these; alternatives to the Big Bang theory. But of course, these aren’t the only controversies playing out in cosmology.

Cosmology is a multidisciplinary field, combining astrophysics and particle physics. The LHC, an enormous particle physics experiment, attempts to recreate the conditions of just after the Big Bang. It has the potential to provide cosmology, particularly Big Bang cosmology, with insight into early Universe evolution, which is dependent on particle properties.

Some of you may remember the uproar a few years ago when the media reported that there was a chance that miniature black holes would be created inside the LHC, which, of course, sparked fear among those who believed that these black holes would suck the Earth into oblivion; this is what the court case was about. This episode would be interesting to analyse from a risk communication stance, which, incidentally, we’ve been chatting about in class. But my point here is simply that I’d bet that many of the panicky public wouldn’t have thought twice about particle physics in the past. What made them react? A threat to their own lives… turns out, if you frame something, even something as remote as a particle physics experiment, as something that will have an effect on people, they will listen.

Given, external controversies such as this in cosmology are dwarfed by controversies internal to the field. Besides worries about the power of the LHC, other external controversies could include those over funding seemingly ‘worthless’ pursuits, as some view experiments such as the LHC and cosmological probes such as the Planck telescope, and arguments revolving around theology, from both anti-Big Bang religious types or anti-Big Bang scientists who believe that religion is too engrained in the Big Bang theory. On the fringe would be the ‘fundamentalist’ astronomers’s argument, who feel that the move towards particle physics to gain exact measurements in cosmology is detrimental to their profession. While this latter is old news in the blogosphere, I’ll address each of these external controversies, and any others I dig up, in good time.

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