Of big bangs and expensive lawyers

By Cam Cotton-O'Brien

In the interest of solving some of the riddles that physics has struggled with for a long time, a group of scientists in Switzerland is getting ready to experiment with colliding particles. There is much anticipation this experiment could provide the scientific community with a great deal of knowledge they can’t otherwise acquire.

Some fear, however, it might blow up the world.

The Large Hadron Collider, which has required a mammoth investment to build, is constructed in a tunnel with a 27-kilometre circumference and intended to smash particles together at 99.99 per cent the speed of light to recreate the conditions just after the big bang. It is situated deep underground near Geneva and the French border and is designed to create temperatures roughly 1,000 times the inside of the sun.

The reason for conducting this intensive operation is to uncover what particles were like and how they behaved and interacted to form the universe and why there turned out to be more matter than anti-matter and, thus, a place for us under the sun. In other words, it should help figure out how the universe began and why the rules emerged as they did. One of the main goals of the project is to find a Higgs particle–one of the fundamental aspects of theoretical physics–but which has never been observed. A massive computer has been constructed to collect and compile data from the experiments, which will likely be repeated an exponential number of times before finding a Higgs particle, if ever. While this offers a tremendous opportunity for science, some are not so sure it’s a good idea.

A lawsuit has been filed in Hawaii aiming to stop the Large Hadron Collider from being used until a new safety review can be conducted. The plaintiffs claim that the machine could, in three different ways, result in the destruction of the world.

The most apparent weirdness in this case has to be the fact the suit was filed in the United States, despite the project residing in Europe. Further, the U.S. has contributed a lot of money to this project, so it doesn’t seem like they would be jumping at the chance to flex their muscles and demand the project’s cessation, even if there was a court ruling to do so. Even if this was the case, it is unclear that the group in charge of the project would heed American demands. They have invested billions of dollars and would be cleared of any wrongdoing in the public eye–so long as the project didn’t blow up the world. This is quite an interesting inanity of the case, but it is certainly not the largest.

Simultaneously, the most comical and distressing aspect of this case is it means that–disregarding the previous discussion of its ineptitude–the safety of the largest particle accelerator in the world would have to be evaluated by lawyers and a judge in court. These are trained professionals, but not in the area of particle physics. Indeed, this case demonstrates not only the limits of our understanding of physics, it also exposes the far reaches of our justice system.

It is interesting to think that this incredibly speculative scientific case will be judged by individuals who will likely have no training in particle physics. The argument may be made that this shouldn’t matter, as there will be experts to explain what is contested. Judges rely on expert testimony every day. When it is a case involving such advanced science, will the judge really be able to comprehend what the expert has to say with enough lucidity to render a just verdict? Surely, any individual who has progressed to the highest ranks of the legal order is of extreme intelligence, but if there is one area of inquiry that might lay beyond the grasp of individuals who have the raw intelligence but have not gone through the intensive training, it would be particle physics.

Perhaps this is an underestimation of judges’ abilities to become knowledgeable in such a field in a matter of months. Or perhaps it is an underestimation of the capacity of the experts to explain such concepts to an intelligent individual. Perhaps so, but it is more likely that this is one case where the decision will be beyond the scope of the mind making it.

Oh well. At least the fate of the world doesn’t depend on it…

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