Dangerous Experiments

Years ago, I had an idea for a movie, the premise of which was that a physics graduate student had discovered that an imminent particle physics experiment was going to destroy the universe. The student had written a computer program to predict what sort of new particle physics events would occur when the next super duper particle accelerator, now nearing completion after years of construction, came on line. The shocking result, checked and rechecked, which his program gave was that with the anticipated beam densities and energies and with the particles involved, a reaction would occur which would trigger the equivalent of a new Big Bang, annihilating the existing universe. Never mind how that singular result would have been presented by a program whose author had no reason to anticipate such an outcome; this is movie science.

Of course, no one would believe a mere graduate student (maybe a little bit of a hippie), especially not the scientists whose careers and future Nobel prizes were at stake, nor the politicians who would have to admit they had squandered a few billion dollars. You get the picture. The hero and his girlfriend try everything to stop the experiment from taking place, finally turning to a personal last-ditch attempt at outright sabotage. Nevertheless, after numerous exciting escapes from security guards etc., they are ultimately foiled. And of course this happens in a way that allows them to watch helplessly as the dreaded experiment finally commences.

The particle accelerator revs up (with impressive sounds and indicator lights), the beam energy gauge rises, the maximum beam energy is reached, a switch is turned to bring about the catastrophic collisions in the particle event detector, and… Nothing spectacular happens. Hero and girlfriend, unable to believe their good fortune, laugh and hug, on realizing they and the universe have survived. There must have been a bug in the program after all. Or maybe the theory was wrong.

That’s not a very satisfying ending I’ll admit, and I hereby give permission to anyone that wants it to take the idea, modify it as desired, and sell it to Hollywood.

Oddly enough, the world now finds itself in a situation that in some ways resembles my movie scenario, though with important differences. Instead of a lone graduate student, we now have the overwhelming majority of climate researchers telling us that their computer program predicts the end of the world as we know it. The “crackpots” in this case are the ones that cast doubt on the prediction.

Both the supposed catastrophe-inducing experiment (continued release of green house gases into the atmosphere at the current or an increasing rate) and the catastrophe itself (runaway global warming and all the bad things that happen when polar ice caps melt etc.) are gradual and cumulative over years, instead of sudden, as in my movie. The movie at least had a quick way to find out who was right.

Since the number of people deeply interested in the results of particle physics experiments is sadly but truly quite low, all it would have taken to stop the experiment in my movie was to get the governments involved to agree to dismantle the accelerator and bury it, much as happened to the ill-fated Texas Supercollider. Substantially curbing green house emissions, however, will require major modifications to the way the world currently works, and will likely call for real sacrifices by billions of people, at least in the short run.

I’m not willing to say the attempt should not be made; but my guess is that it’s not going to happen, at least not as quickly as the most alarmist predictions would require. So, like it or not, we will probably be in the position of the main characters in my movie, after all else has failed, fatalistically waiting to experience the results of the experiment, only in slow motion, and perhaps passing the anxiety on to our descendants.

As regards the ending of the movie compared to the real-world script: based on my experience with complex computer models, people’s tendency to place too much confidence in their results, and my guess at the current level of scientific understanding of world climate, I don’t think it is crazy to hope—note that I said “crazy” and “hope”—that the ending of the world’s current drama, foolhardy though it may be, will be as happy for future generations as my movie’s was for its main characters.

However that turns out, unless climate modification becomes a branch of practical engineering (and how do you test whether something works in advance?), there is good reason to believe that the future will see major natural climate changes, most likely of the ice age type. That is, unless we have lucked out on those with our unnatural warming.


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