My good friend Diederik Jekel, who has actually been the subject of a post in this space recently, approached me with the idea of doing a guest post. I often enjoy Diederik’s opinions on separating good science from bad science and we have had many stimulating discussions on the subject in the past. Since Diederik is looking to be an actual science writer (as opposed to an armchair dilettante like myself) I am honored to host this essay, or “rant” as he calls it.
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The past day I have stumbled a few times upon an article by Elizabeth Young. A few times because it has been published at multiple sites, a few of which have continuously tried to open pop-ups telling me I was a winner of a grand prize. Putting this all aside, I was intrigued by this article because it was combining the words ‘rapture’ and the ‘Large Hadron Collider’. Two things which I am very interested in. The article speaks of mass torture being inflicted on Mother Earth by doing experiments inside the LHC. A true genocide performed on innocent atoms and protons who are obviously neglected by the Geneva Convention. The international human rights Magna Carta is invoked and the question is posed, if these rights are applicable to us humans, why does it not apply to Mother Earth?
Now my intonation might come across as cynical but I am truly not here to bash the article as perhaps a non-believer of the Gaia theory. I find it is very productive and useful in a discussion or policy to perceive the earth and her constituents as a living organism which must be cared for and nurtured. Even if it is done so as a selfish act whose only goal is to keep our species alive. So, addressing ethical dilemmas, which are often overlooked in the pursuit of scientific discovery, is something which can only be encouraged and applauded.
That being said, a few things about the article annoyed me, so much even that I found it necessary to say something on behalf of the physicists who are, according to this article, for all intents and purposes, callous, sociopathic monsters. This discussion is difficult though, because of the religious undertone in the article. It does not make sense to throw just scientific arguments against it. In the end you either believe in Gaia or you don’t. You believe in God or you don’t, and many scientists do actually. The scientific vs. religious debate is one which is often fought wrongly, because both sides have their own set of rules and try to convince the other side with their own set. It is like a Brit trying to convince a Dutch person it is dangerous to drive on the right side of the road. It might be perfectly valid in the construct of the British rules, but the Dutch guy will have serious trepidations about following his advice. So you can only debate with the Dutch guy if you use the Dutch traffic codes as arguments.
Crashing and smashing
Which brings me to the first point. In the article a graphic description is given of how atoms and protons collide in a fashion which would not be very pleasant to us humans. We would not like to be crashed into one another at nearly the speed of light. Why are we scientists then so arrogant in assuming this is OK for particles? I was always taught in religion classes in school that the Lord works in mysterious ways and that it is very presumptuous to assume that you know God’s plan.
Two things I know for a fact. One is that the earth is constantly bombarded by particles which have billions of times more energy than the ones we can create inside the LHC. These particles are generated in supernova explosions, rotating black holes and colliding galaxies. Processes which are incredibly more violent than we can possibly create here on earth. Nature seems to be fine with this, because she has been doing this for eons.
Another fact is that Brookhaven National Laboratory has claimed to have created the same kind of soup which the LHC wants to create. This new phase of matter is called quark-gluon plasma and like the three phases of water (ice, liquid and vapor) it is just another phase of matter. When you heat ice, it becomes water. When you heat water, it becomes a gas and if you were to heat lead atoms to trillions of degrees, it should become a quark-gluon plasma. So this has been done before and it shows that with extreme pressure and extreme temperatures, you get this weird state of matter.
To the best of physicists’ knowledge, there was something called a big bang, and only a fraction after the point of creation the universe was extremely dense and extremely hot. Gradually the universe expanded, which cooled everything and made it less dense. Precisely as predicted, this state will come about when you heat matter to enormous temperatures and this is what happens inside the LHC. It is, pun intended, a giant space heater. A nice hint towards the correctness of the big bang theory.
So if Nature is doing the same thing on her own on a massive scale, and that by just increasing pressure and temperature we find this incredibly beautiful substance called quark-gluon plasma, who are we to say: “This is something Nature finds unpleasant.”
All particles and forces around us were born inside this soup of quarks and gluons. Everything we see around us today, from a beautiful sunset, to this rant from a physicist, to all my wonderful friends, have originated from this ooze. This is our genesis and this is what physicists are trying to understand. Elizabeth Young quotes the Bible a lot as a justification for her side of the story. But in doing so she is trying to prevent us from understanding the origin of everything in our own scientific, empirical, and experimentally verified way.
So she claims to know all about God and Mother Earth and denies me my right to understand where we are coming from. What makes her such an expert? This is difficult to find out, because all information about the author (except her name) is about her husband. Do not get me wrong, her husband seems like a sensible, heroic and wonderful human being, but I have absolutely no credentials of the author herself. Oh, this is not entirely true, she is a Hollywood screenwriter. Besides that she will not tell the reader what makes her an expert.
Why do you care so much, you may wonder. Why are you whining about this? Fair and valid questions. The problem is that because she explains some things in scientific terms it seems that she knows what she is saying. If you throw big numbers and impressive terms at readers, they tend to see that person as an expert. Something which is common practice in pseudo-science. I am emphatically not claiming she is a pseudo-scientist here to dupe the masses. I am saying this to clear up why I am so annoyed by this article. People take it at face value because it is written nicely and has technical aspects to it, so as a reader why check it out further. How could you be critical of this, if you are not familiar with the subject?
A few scientific details I would like to clarify. The first argument she makes is the mass electrocution of the earth by the LHC. There are many more things happening daily on earth which cause a lot more electric energy than the LHC. I will come to that later and give an example. But first I must address something she keeps claiming:
Each time the LHC is fired, God, the Planet, Gaea, our Mother Earth is violently shocked with 3,500,000,000,000 volts of electricity.
I believe that she gets this number from the fact that particles are accelerated to an energy of 3.5 TeV or tera-electron volts. This is the quoted number up there. What physicists mean is the following: the particles inside the accelerator have the same amount of energy as an electron would have if we were to put it inside a potential difference (think battery) of 3,500,000,000,000 volts (think very large battery). This is a ridiculously large number. For if we were to make such a field, we would generate incredible lightning storms. Think of it this way, if you have a potential difference of 30,000 volts, you will get lightning of about 1 cm long. So having 60,000 volts gives you 2 cm long lightning and so on. This 3.5 TV gives you lightning of more than 1100 kilometers long! So this is to put the ridiculous number into context. Something else must be going on here.
Luckily we don’t have to accelerate particles with electric fields, we use big magnets. We only use this archaic measurement unit because it is convenient. You can even use lasers to accelerate particles, and that has even less to do with electricity. To make it even more strange, I can calculate how much electron volts worth of energy I have, when traveling inside my car at 80 km/h. It is a staggering 1.2 × 1023 eV, or to put it in context, 35 billion times more energy is in me traveling at that speed, than the LHC puts in its particles. The thing is I am also very much more heavy than a proton, so to put that amount of energy in one proton is very impressive. So not much zapping is going on because we do not use these electric fields.
Let us look at other sources which are electrocuting the earth. The earth’s entire magnetic field is created by extremely large electric currents flowing inside the earth’s core. Another electrocution source is lightning. Annually there are 16 million lightning storms, containing hundreds of bolts and each average bolt produces 500 megajoules of energy. 500 megajoules (a single bolt) in the weird electron volt unit gives 3 × 1027 electron volts!!! Which does not even have an official name because it is so big. It would be 3000 yotta-electron volts and is the equivalent of 857 trillion times the energy the LHC puts in her particles. And this is just one lightning bolt. So if the earth does not like electricity, it should stop making so much of it.
So much more energy is contained in lightning storms and in the earth’s core than the LHC can ever produce. And even so, the LHC does not generate this energy by using electricity, it does this by using magnets (which run on electricity, but this is not zapped straight into the earth.)
She goes on to use some other numbers, which are very questionable to say the least, but I don’t want to bore the reader with more he-said-she-said on math.
Then comes the part where she says the LHC is all pointless because:
Whatever the outcome, the LHC will not be the final word in physics experimentation.
I find this unbelievable. So if it is not perfect, we should not do it at all? I am very glad she did not live during the caveman era, where man was trying to invent fire and she would say, “Why bother? It tends to go out and I might burn myself.” I believe the first aeroplane flight lasted about 10 seconds?
The endnotes finally are questionable to say the least and many quotes are used out of context but what I find utterly annoying is that she posts a phone number of a scientist online which you must call after reading her story, asking him to stop the experiment. I wonder if I should post her number here, so people can call her to explain what they think of her story. It is a spam-inducing breach of privacy.
One final quote:
But let me tell you this. I have proof these scientists may be several wires short of a working plug. Before they began their descent into scientific instability, these people actually made a rap video.
So as an extra argument for not trusting the hundreds of scientists who have worked their (pardon my French) asses off, she refers to a humorous video a few employees have made in an effort to make a particle accelerator a bit more comprehensible. Many people are afraid of this device, because of people like Elizabeth Young, who instead of trying to understand, try to scare the hell out of normal citizens. Including friends and family of mine who are, understandably so, worried.
The rap video was a joke. If scientists cannot be trusted when they try to make their work fun and relatable, then we are about to create very boring and annoying physicists. Scientists cannot use media such as video and rap songs to relate a more informal message? Then I ask you, Hollywood screenwriter Elizabeth Young, do you really want to link credibility to popular culture? Especially if these people made the rap video while getting their PhD in physics?
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Diederik Jekel is a Dutch physicist and scientific journalist. He received his degree in solid state physics and graduated on a superconductivity experiment. He is very happy to give more details about himself if necessary, but only about himself and not about his relationship.