CERN: The end of the world, or the height of public ignorance?

I remember being stood in a primary school on the day the Large Hadron Collider was switched on. Around me, apart from a handful of giggling boys who had noticed the comic potential of swapping the ‘d’ and the ‘r’, the vast majority of the pre-teens (and their teachers, for that matter) seemed to be desperately worried that today might be the last day of civilisation. The day the world ended. “What’s the point?”, one tearful girl asked me. “Why risk all our lives just for an experiment?”.

I was bemused by their concerns at first, and then increasingly annoyed at the misinformation that had led to trepidation taking the place of excitement at the advent of one of the biggest pieces of scientific investigation in history.

Realistically the worst that can happen in this particle accelerator is that they prove the theoretical particle which holds the universe together does not in fact exist.  Which in turn would mean me having to teach an incorrect branch of science to school students until the exam boards could catch up with the changes in accepted understanding.

Of course, it’s not helped by non-media-trained scientists plaintively telling journalists that they can’t promise to not accidentally destroy the Earth. Any pragmatist can understand why they would make no such promise, but I wonder whether the public might be better served with a less academically stringent feed of information. If there really is more chance of you dying on Saturday than there is of winning the lottery, you’d need both to happen simultaneously to every single person in the country to beat out the probability of the LHC ending mankind (and 85% of statistics are made up on the spot – fact).

So let’s enjoy the culmination of this enormous internationally-funded experiment, and hope that when the hysteria dies down that we finally have the definitive word on the non-existence or otherwise of the Higgs boson.  And please, please, don’t let your kids believe the world is going to be swallowed into itself in a man-made black hole.  Because if it does happen, we’ll be gone before there’s time to worry about it anyway.

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