10 September 2008

LHCb sees where the antimatter's gone

Wow. I actually got up this morning to listen to the Large Hadron Collider being switched on. Nor was I alone, I noticed two other friends online doing the same (though to be fair one is a maths teacher and the other an engineer), and I can't remember the last time a science story got so much coverage.

Of course much of this coverage has been along the lines of the 'public scared the world is going to end' variety, and I was more than a little concerned to see CNN yesterday giving equal time to a scientist working at CERN and a YouTube video that showed the world collapsing in upon itself. While the internet and AM radio in the US has given anyone with a load enough voice a platform, no matter how outlandish their ideas, once upon a time you could rely on the mainstream (non-Fox) media to act as a very basic filter, keeping the more ridiculous ideas on the fringe. As old media has reacted to audience loss to new media by incorporating more online social aspects into their broadcasts (CNN's iReport is one example), this filter is being eroded, and the value of an expert opinion is diminished.

While the classic Simpson's joke has the audience swayed each time by someone crying "won't someone please think of the children", removing filters like this often leaves issues being decided by hysterical emotional arguments (every time I hear someone starting a sentence with "speaking as a parent", I die a little inside), and contributes strongly to the pervasive culture of fear that exists in the US. With the LHC the fantastical nightmare scenario portrayed by alarmists with no scientific background is given equal weight by the media to the knowledge of scientists with many lifetimes' experience because scaring the public creates a more excited audience, higher ratings, happier advertisers, and richer shareholders.

While the erosion of the value of scientific opinion has been a by-product of the ratings war, there has also been a systematic attempt over the last seven years to corrupt, control and at times ridicule many scientific programs. I'm reading 'The Republican War on Science' right now, by Chris Mooney (something that I picked up in Moe's Bookshop in Berkeley, one of the best second-hand bookshops I've ever been in), which tells a pretty comprehensive and damning tale of political censorship on research areas such as climate change, environmental issues, stem cell research, sex education, NASA priorities and, of course, evolution, that has originated from the White House and the Bush administration. The selection of Sarah Palin based in part on her creationist beliefs (not to mention her willingness to ban books that don't align with those beliefs) as a way of energising the Republican base shows that this bias against science does not just come from a few at the top, rather it is part of a much wider movement. When I watched the coverage of Palin last week and saw the bump the Republicans got in the polls because of it I found myself thinking how right Margaret Atwood was twenty years ago, this is how "The Handmaid's Tale' comes to pass.

As for the LHC, despite the many predictions of doom appearing on the internets, the scariest thing that happened this morning was hearing the amount of Welsh accents at CERN*. That and the fact that the most comprehensive explanation of what the LHC actually does was delivered by the CERN team via the medium of rap.

A little less body-popping and a little more time spent on safety checks would not have gone amiss, you know, just in case...

For me the final word on this goes to Professor Brian Cox, a scientist at CERN working on the LHC, interviewed by the BBC:
I am in fact immensely irritated by the conspiracy theorists who spread this nonsense around and try to scare people. This non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes intelligent design amongst other things.

The only serious issue is why so many people who don't have the time or inclination to discover for themselves why this stuff is total crap have to be exposed to the opinions of these half-wits.
*I realise that you may be reading this some time after the initial LHC power-on. If you want to double check whether or not it has destroyed the world yet, I suggest you try here (thanks Dermo!).

LHC homepage at CERN
Big Bang Day - series of reports on Radio 4
'The Republican War on Science' - Chris Mooney


At 4:24 pm, Blogger Kate said...

Best. Link. Ever.

(http://hasthelargehadroncollider... etc)

Thank You!

So when you hitting the South East?

You can manage half of the Americas, parts of Africa but not anything within a 100mile radius of your apartment?



At 5:09 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

ypu - pretty tasty all right, read the page's source code for more reassurance that it's working.

As for the "sunny" south east, I'll have a better idea next week what my plans for the rest of the month are. For now though I am just luxuriating in the thrill of sleeping in my own bed.


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