The Great Fear of the Unknown

So much for the end of the world.

Fears that the atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider would create black holes — gravitational sinkholes from which not even light can escape — and end life as we know it have joined UFOs and Bigfoot on the roster of pseudoscientific scares.

Before it was launched on Oct. 10, bloggers, late-night comedians, worried parents around the world and at least two lawsuits greeted the mere start-up of the collider with dismay. But Earth clearly survived the collider's first nine days of operations before a technical glitch shut it down.

Experts at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN — an acronym kept from an earlier name), which created the $6 billion grand experiment in particle physics, are resigned to the scares kicking up again when the collider starts back up next year and begins smashing protons.

"It's only natural. We are curious about the unknown, and that's why we explore mysteries like the conditions of the early universe," says CERN spokesman James Gillies. "At the same time, we fear the unknown, and particle physics can be one of those things that is hard for people to understand."

The collider — a 16.6-mile underground race track that will smash protons together in an attempt to re-create conditions from the beginnings of the universe — is the most recent example of a scientific experiment that taps into the public's deep reserve of doomsday fears.

There is something in the human psyche that makes us view some innovations or research with great suspicion, fearing that careless scientists will blow us all to kingdom come, says sociologist Robert Bartholomew, author of the 2001 book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. "People see what they expect to see in a search for certainty, especially during times of crisis, as they attempt to confirm their worst fears and greatest hopes."

Lack of understanding, "combined with anxiety, has been responsible for scares of all sorts over the centuries," he notes, ranging from witchcraft trials to UFO sightings. Scares often arise from such anxieties as war jitters, including the phantom zeppelin sightings that convulsed Great Britain before World War I.

Other great fears

Among the "nightmare" science scares in the past:

•The Halley's Comet Scare of 1910, when New Englanders were stuffing keyholes with rags and barricading themselves in their cellars on the night the tail of Halley's comet passed nearest to Earth.

•The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954, when hundreds reported dime-sized pits in their windshields after Pacific Ocean H-bomb tests. The pits, as it turned out, had been there all along.

•The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider "Disaster Scenarios" at Brookhaven National Lab of 1999, when the start-up of an atom smasher in Upton, N.Y., triggered worries identical to those that greeted the Large Hadron Collider.

The most famous science scare in popular lore might be Orson Welles' 1938 re-creation of H.G. Wells' science-fiction classic The War of the Worlds. Initial reports claimed that millions, thinking they were listening to a real news broadcast, were panicked by the radio drama. Later studies showed the reports of mass panic were mostly just a media sensation.

And then the Large Hadron Collider joined their ranks.

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