Fresh from savouring the dismal level of scientific literacy on display in the world of brain gyms, while flicking through Metro on my commute this morning I came across a gem of popular science writing—a “Metrocosm” page devoted to the imminent opening of the largest particle accelerator every built, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It’s an event Metro anticipates with sober trepidation:
Initially, all looks good and the first results to be crunched by the facility’s super computers are promising. But it quickly becomes clear that something has gone wrong. Somewhere in the miles of super-cooled tunnels a tiny black hole has been created and, like all its kin, it is hungry. Surrounding matter is rapidly sucked into the gravitational abyss in a runaway process that sees it growing unstoppably in size until it has engulfed the entire Earth and crunched it down inside its inescapable event horizon. Unlikely? Yes. But that hasn’t stopped some people from trying to shut the project down before it gets the chance to kill us all.
This masterpiece reminds me more than a little of the immortal words uttered by an unwitting pundit during the (satirical) TV programme Brass Eye in 2001, regarding the suggestion that paedophiles are genetically more similar to the common crab than they are to ordinary people: “That is scientific fact. There is no real evidence for it, but it’s scientific fact.”
In fact, as Gwyneth Lewis has pointed out in our own pages, “A common misconception about the LHC is that its colliding beams risk creating a black hole. Black holes happen when stars with diameters hundreds of times that of the earth collapse. Some of the densities to be created at the LHC are similar, but with infinitesimal pieces of matter—fragments of protons. In any case, cosmic rays have been hitting the earth for millions of years at higher energies than those to be produced by the LHC…” Although, with yesterday’s satire increasingly resembling prophecy, the idea that evidence should be allowed to get in the way of a good story (and a sexy graphic) seems positively antique.