Physicists attacked for endangering the planet, for being less alarmist than the climate change cranks
Tommaso Dorigo of CMS discusses a new bizarre proposal to establish a U.S. commission that would evaluate the risks that the RHIC experiment will destroy our blue, not green planet:
Dorigo mentions several other scenarios by which the mad scientists called "physicists" plan to destroy the Earth and every molecule of it.
The production of a hungry black hole that swallows the Earth is the most popular scenario. But at Long Island's RHIC experiment, people prefer to talk about the strangelets. A strangelet is a hypothetical macroscopically large nucleus that doesn't contain just up-quarks and down-quarks as the usual nuclei do (it's the two quarks in the protons and neutrons); about 1/3 of its mass is composed of the strange-quarks.
This mutated composition may make it energetically favorable for the strangelets to grow indefinitely and eat the surrounding atoms along the way (the hadrons containing strange-quarks are clearly not favored if the hadrons are small enough: a strange-quark adds something like \(150\MeV\) to the rest energy). The final product wouldn't differ from the Earth-mass black hole mass as far as the practical implications go.
Like in other cases, there exist numerous arguments indicating that the threat is de facto non-existent. I recommend you e.g. the 2000 analysis of the RHIC cataclysms written by 4 authors including my Twitter follower and Nobel prize winner Frank Wilczek.
The "we are safe" arguments are diverse and exist at many levels. Much like in the black hole case, the arguments that are most comprehensible and least dependent on "impenetrably deep theory" are arguments that de facto say that "it would have already happened if it could happen now" and that promote this proposition to some quantitative, empirically rooted reasoning. If strangelets could be created by such "not so unusual" collisions, we would already be observing strangelets around us, like one that would have eaten the Moon, and so on. Because the celestial bodies haven't been eaten yet, despite the collisions with the high-energy cosmic rays, it either means that the strangelets are not created at all; or they are created and stop growing once they reach a particular, macroscopic size (the maximum size has to be large enough to pose a threat for the Earth; but small enough not to contradict the observations – i.e. smaller than the Moon). The latter assumption is fine-tuned, unnatural, and therefore unlikely.
It's a very interesting theoretical question whether strangelets exist or may exist somewhere in the Universe – whether the nuclear matter energetically prefers this setup with many strange quarks. If it does, the strangelets may exist in the Universe. They may even be responsible for some dark matter or all dark matter. The evidence is mixed on that question; Edward Witten and Arnold Bodmer would present some initial evidence supporting the answer "Yes" while Robert Jaffe and Ed Farhi coined the "strangelet" trademark. However, the question about the "in principle" existence of a strangelet is an entirely different question from the question whether strangelets may be produced in collisions on man-made accelerators which would pose a threat for the life on Earth.
The previous sentence about the difference is completely analogous to the difference between the claim "the greenhouse effect exists as a matter of physics principle" and the claim "emissions of greenhouse gases represent a threat for the Earth". The probabilities of the "more ambitious", dangerous statements are lower than the probabilities of the first statements by many orders of magnitude (perhaps dozens of orders of magnitude). The laymen – and even some people who shouldn't belong among the laymen but they do – are often extremely sloppy when they hear a buzzword, like a "black hole" or a "strangelet" or the "greenhouse effect" and they are intrigued by the "potential dangerous real-life implications" of the concept which completely prevents them from seeing that the concept itself is a neutral concept in science that is almost certainly safe for us even if it exists.
Indeed, the probability that a strangelet will consume the nuclei on Earth is as ludicrously tiny as the probability that the CO2 emissions will lead to the extinction of life on Earth before 2100. Someone could say that the probability of the "strangelet Armageddon" is even tinier, perhaps much tinier, but I don't really agree. Both probabilities are tiny. In the strangelet case, we are talking about a "more extreme kind of destruction" which makes it less likely but we are also actually playing with some more extreme and potentially "less tested" forms of matter when we collide nuclei at high energies which adds "some" uncertainty. In the case of the climate, we know very well that a warming by several degrees, even if it were caused by the CO2 emissions, wouldn't threaten the life because those things have occurred many times in the Earth's history.
(By the way, do you know that the mankind went nearly extinct 100,000 years ago? Only about 5,000-10,000 people were alive on Earth; they could be comfortably seated in the Shayba Arena in Sochi. You could think that the cold weather during the ice age was the reason. Or drought. But the likely reason was a sequence of pandemics that destroyed almost all humans except for a few mutated ones whose new gene didn't allow Escherichia coli and Streptococcus type B to bind to sugars that the extinct humans were producing – causing bad diarrhea and children's meningitis. Due to the near extinction, the mankind lost the ability to synthetize these sugars on the surface of cells but we gained the survival. I wouldn't be surprised if I were possessing the extinct gene again. Infections are still vastly more likely to kill the mankind than any other threat that has become popular.)
Now, when it comes to similar "wars about the panic", people may obviously err in both directions. They may waste lots of resources due to silly, unjustified fears; in principle, they may also underestimate real threats and pay dearly. Needless to say, these two classes of errors are often linked to each other; when you overestimate some threat, you are likely to overlook many threats that are more real and more important. There is no universal recipe to avoid such errors. Democracy isn't a universal cure that would produce flawless policies. Mindless listening to a group of experts or a commission or a single anointed expert isn't a flawless solution, either. No individual is infallible; no group is infallible, either. Quite generally, it is true that the more stupid the people in charge are, the more stupid the policies codified by them will be in average. When it comes to the physics of strange-quarks, the two lawyers are clearly dumb as a doorknob, perhaps more so than your janitor.
The guys who propose the new "RHIC cataclysm commission" conjecture that the physicists are in a clash of interest:
But after public concerns subsided, critics emerged, assailing the risk-assessment method as flawed. Dr. Rees wrote that theorists “seemed to have aimed to reassure the public … rather than to make an objective analysis.”Their point is that one can't believe the RHIC physicists' testimony because these physicists are among the people for whom the production of new RHIC data is more important than the secondary question whether the Earth is destroyed or not. ;-)
Richard Posner noted [...] that the scientists on the Brookhaven risk-assessment team were either planning to participate in RHIC experiments or had a deep interest in the RHIC’s data.
That could sound as a joke but we may check whether this assumption about particle physicists' thinking is realistic by investigating the views of a particular particle physicist. What about Tommaso Dorigo himself? Does he care whether the Earth is destroyed or not?
One last thought: regardless of the evidently significant disappointment of losing our entire planet, mankind, and our artistic heritage (where else in the Universe is there a Chopin, or a Mozart ? Alas, I fear we will never know, strangelets or not), I fail to be seized by the fear of dying a much premature death by being turned into strange matter, as I know that I would be going down with absolutely everybody and everything else. Am I the only one feeling unconcerned?He's not concerned at all so the lawyers' worries seem to be fully justified.
Tommaso Dorigo is unconcerned for the very same reason that we would discuss just a few hours ago. I wrote that left-wingers want to make the Earth a sh*ttier place to live. SteveBrooklineMA has corrected me. What they really like about it is that the world will be an equally sh*tty place for everyone, and that's a good thing because equality is the most precious value they struggle to achieve.
You may notice that Tommaso Dorigo's thinking exactly agrees with Steve's template. Tommaso doesn't care whether the Earth is gonna be destroyed because everyone and everything would be going down with him, in a nicely egalitarian way! (I have actually heard an almost identical answer from Nathan Seiberg during a formal theoretical seminar where he was asked whether SUSY would be doomed. He answered something like this: "If SUSY is shown inconsistent, I will go down but I will take many people with me!" Equality seems to be really important for the left-wingers.)
So it seems that Yes, you must create a commission asking "are these mad scientists going to destroy the Earth" for every experiment whose team is composed of mad left-wingers like Tommaso Dorigo. But I would still like to inform the lawyers who wrote the idiotic article in The International Business Times that several sane, competent, conservative members of an experiment who consider the cataclysm scares to be silly and who can present the evidence are pretty much enough to eliminate worries.
Conservative physicists generally care whether the Earth is going to be destroyed – its destruction would be a bad thing whether or not it would be done in a nice, egalitarian way! And we are generally not too impressed by the argument that the strangeletization of the Earth would be painless; there's nothing wrong with pain because pain is just a useful signal that sometimes helps us to avoid some real threats. So just investigate whether there are at least some conservative physicists at RHIC and if the answer is Yes, just splash your weird proposal for the cataclysm commission into the toilet where it belongs. Thank you very much.