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.

"I believe this is a social delusion with legs," Bartholomew says. After all, the actual collisions of protons at the lab won't start again until spring, when he believes fears will resurface that the colliding protons will create black holes in the same way that imploding stars do in space.

"In the case of the 'Collider Calamity,' believers are likely to redouble their efforts to stop the experiments, and their numbers are likely to grow in the short term," Bartholomew says. "Most 'believers' seem to think Armageddon will happen when the experiments become more sophisticated

Other great fears

Physicists are hoping that the collider's brief period of operation has assuaged public fears. "Such (proton) collisions cannot be dangerous," concluded the 2007 LHC Safety Group. The group noted that cosmic rays — radiation from stars, black holes and elsewhere in space that, like the LHC protons, are submicroscopic — regularly smack into the atmosphere with more oomph than the lab possesses without destroying Earth.

"I would get calls from mothers who say their kids are scared and can't sleep at night," says LHC spokesman Gillies. "It is a phenomenon. We didn't anticipate it getting the level of attention it did."

Concerns have been circulating since CERN was featured in the Dan Brown novel Angels & Demons as the source of dangerous antimatter — which has the same gravitational properties as ordinary matter, but an opposite electric charge — that was stolen to be used as a weapon against the Vatican. CERN replied that its facilities create so little antimatter that a terrorist would need to wait billions of years for the lab to accumulate the amount needed in a bomb.

A movie version of the book, starring Tom Hanks, is set to open in May, just about the time the lab will have started collecting data from proton collisions.

"What's intriguing about this scare is the key role being played by Internet blog sites where everyone with a computer and a phone line can weigh in," says Bartholomew. "The trouble is, scientists tend to avoid absolutes and speak in terms of probabilities. A number of respected scientists have made statements to the effect that the chances of a calamity are virtually nil — which is not saying it's zero, though they may mean it."

Lawsuit thrown out

In Hawaii, a federal judge recently dismissed a headline-garnering lawsuit, filed in March, demanding a halt to the proton collider over fears that collisions between beams of protons traveling at nearly the speed of light, 670 million mph, might result in a runaway fusion reaction, eventually converting all of Earth into a single, huge "strangelet." A strangelet is an exotic form of matter created in collapsed stars.

The suit also warned of black holes and magnetic monopoles, particles capable of causing the decay of all normal matter. But it was thrown out for jurisdictional reasons, as the collider resides near Geneva, on the Swiss-French border. A similar suit is still alive in Germany.

But now that a helium leak blew out an electrical connection between magnets, the collider is back in the shop until next year. "If we had to do it again, we would have responded to the fears more up-front and immediately," Gillies says.

"We are going to see some wonderful things once the collider starts gathering data," says Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek

By 2010, data from the proton smash-up should start piling up. The collisions will heat clouds of protons to temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun, creating a soup of elementary subatomic particles like those first spawned by the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. "We hope and expect to see something new," Wilczek says.

In particular, they expect to see signs of a particle called the Higgs Boson, whose existence explains the mass of other elementary particles. But they hope to see more exotic, heavier particles observable at higher temperature that serve as high-energy counterparts to the everyday atomic particles more often studied in physics experiments.

"Personally, I'm not losing sleep," says MIT physicist Max Tegmark. "Particles from nearby black holes in space crash into Earth all the time, creating way more violent collisions than (the) LHC ever can, and this clearly hasn't killed us. Space is a really violent place."

A 2005 Nature journal study Tegmark authored with English futurist Nick Bostrom of Oxford University found that observations of nearby planets and stars concluded that catastrophic black-hole-creation events could occur spontaneously at most once every 10 trillion years, roughly 1,000 times longer than the age of the universe.

No chance, in other words.