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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Farewell from the graduating Battalion staff of 2024
Farewell from the graduating Battalion staff of 2024
The BattalionMay 4, 2024

Outside Observer | Science at any cost

It’s the end of the world as we know it. Unlikely? Sure. Improbable? Yes. But according to two researchers in Hawaii who are suing CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in United States federal court, Judgment Day may be right around the corner – the product of a man-made mini-black hole.
Later this year, scientists at CERN’s new Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, will begin smashing sub-atomic particles together at close to the speed of light in an effort to recreate energies and conditions only seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Physicists at CERN have spent $8 billion over 14 years to build the 27-kilometer tunnel, and they dismiss the possibility that a tiny black hole could appear under the hills of Switzerland.
Physics researchers Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho, however, have pointed out that even a CERN press release acknowledges the likelihood of “unexpected results.” Their suit, according to the New York Times, calls for a restraining order to prevent the possible formation of apocalyptic occurrences such as a black hole or a “strangelet,” which they say could reduce the planet to a dense lump of quasi-matter.
Before anyone starts blowing off their schoolwork in favor of a giant countdown party, they should know that CERN has passed multiple safety reviews and that Wagner, one of the co-plaintiffs, once filed similar lawsuits to stop the Brookhaven National Laboratory from starting their Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. The collider has been operating without problems since the suit was dismissed in 2001.
Despite the plaintiffs’ comic similarity to crackpot science-fiction fans, this case raises a number of serious questions about the future of scientific inquiry, especially at a research university like Dartmouth. If physicists calculated a
1 percent possibility of the creation of a devastating black hole in CERN’s supercollider, would that be acceptable? What about a hundredth of a percent? Or a thousandth?
In research laboratories from Hanover to Bangkok, scientists are handling dangerous materials and studying ethically gray areas: from gene altering to cloning, nanotechnology to anthrax. Most Western countries have rigorous safety standards, but what happens if a researcher in a hidden lab in China, for example, accidentally infects him or herself with a violent strain of bird flu?
There are many more tangible problems in our world, and catastrophes such as the ones highlighted by the plaintiffs in Hawaii will most likely never appear outside of movie theatres. Yet, we should still examine global scientific policy. While a federal court in the middle of the Pacific Ocean obviously has no jurisdiction over an organization run by 20 European countries, who should? If we leave discretion up to individual scientists themselves, it is doubtful any would voluntarily abandon their research in fear of the unlikely.
One of Dartmouth’s greatest accomplishments is its legacy of academic research within a small college setting, and that pursuit should never be disregarded or substantially constrained. Our great technological accomplishments of the past – from the influential Dartmouth Conference on Artificial Intelligence in 1956 that launched the field, to the invention of the BASIC computer language by future College President John G. Kemeny in 1964 – teach us that the College’s goals go far beyond grooming the next generation of lawyers and corporate CEOs.
Here in the hills of New Hampshire, where we already bridge the gap between cutting-edge research and liberal arts instruction, is as good as any place to start re-evaluating our constant drive for scientific progress at any cost. If we can strike a balance between those two competing educational forces, perhaps we can also establish the gentle opening ties that keep science from flying off without us.
As a species, we humans almost never confront a problem before it is already upon us. Unfortunately, after one black hole or worldwide epidemic, we might not get another shot.
Brian Solomon is a student at Dartmouth.

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