17 September 2008

The Price of Ignorance...

...our demise, perhaps?

When did we become afraid of adventure?
Friday, September 12, 2008 | 04:08 PM ET
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.

Amid fears of global catastrophe, the Large Hadron Collider was fired up this week in an event that was, well, under whelming. After three decades of waiting, a hush fell over the large crowd of scientists gathered in the control room, anxiously watching a bank of computer monitors lining the front wall. Then suddenly, there it was…a little white dot that flashed for less than a second. No sound of a big bang, no rumblings in the ground, no cosmic disaster; just a little white dot. Anyone who blinked at the wrong time would have missed it.

Of course, cheers erupted in the room over the fact that the world’s largest machine actually works; but to the uninitiated, nothing much happened. And in fact, on the human scale, not much did. Everything in the collider deals with incredibly tiny particles exchanging energy in a very tiny space for a very short period of time. All the protests, fear-mongering over uncontrolled nuclear explosions or black holes eating the planet, came down to that little white blip.

This is not to diminish the importance of the project. Those blips will provide an enormous wealth of data, similar to that returned by the Hubble Space Telescope. In fact, both projects are attempting to look back in time to explore conditions that existed at the beginning of the universe and try to understand how everything we know today came to be. But to be afraid of the Large Hadron Collider is like saying, “Don’t look through that new telescope, you might see something scary!”

Exploring the unknown used to be exciting and educational. 50 years ago, we started building rockets to explore the unknown regions of space. We’ve since landed on alien worlds, seen things we never dreamed of. As well, back then, the perceived threat of Soviet supremacy in space stimulated a reform of the education system in North America. Science and math were brought to the forefront in an effort to breed a new generation of scientists who could counter that threat with new technologies. Fear was fought with education.

Now, it seems, popular science education still has a long way to go. Fear-based misinformation is getting far too much press. This week, I’ve been asked countless questions about the dangers of the Large Hadron Collider, and not just about the fear of a black hole swallowing the Earth. One inquiry spoke of “hidden dangers lurking in the unknown.” That last one is really troublesome.

Exploring the unknown has always led to our greatest achievements. The discovery of the electron, the connection between electricity and magnetism, the structure of the atom, the structure of DNA, a long list of fundamental discoveries that have all given birth to remarkable technologies that have revolutionized our lives. True, some of that knowledge has been misused, such as developing weapons of mass destruction, but overall, the benefits of knowledge still outweigh the cost of ignorance.

Now, physicists are on the verge of new fundamental knowledge. The Large Hadron Collider will help bring together all the forces that act on the very smallest and very largest of scales. No one knows where that will lead or what might come out of it. That’s not the point. There is still a great deal of the universe we don’t know. In fact, most of it is beyond our grasp and so far, every time we’ve stepped into an unknown realm of nature, we’ve come away all the better for it.

So let’s not be afraid to gain knowledge just for the sake of knowing it.

I'm not so sure why our society now seems to reward the pursuits that once seemed most regressive, whether it be fundamentalism, reality television, Ultimate Fighting, or StripTease exercise classes. Whatever happened to the virtues of knowledge, adventure and scientific method?

I was blown away by the amount of completely uninformed criticisms of the LHC online spewed by people that had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. It was pretty depressing, and I think is mostly a product of our 'universal soapbox' communication age. Anyone can have an opinion about anything at anytime, even if they have no clue what the hell they are talking about.

So why reward mediocrity? Is it because the stupid stuff takes less effort and energy?

It's all very strange.

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