Why Physics Experiments at the Subatomic Level May Cause 'Unknown Unknowns' to Destroy the World

2016-05-22-1463887228-4328923-Particleblue.jpgCreative Commons via Wikimedia Commons, a simulated particle collision at the Large Hadron Collider, Lucas Taylor

"There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

-Donald Rumsfeld

Is our world about to be destroyed?

We are forever being inundated by sensational media stories and Internet rumors how our planet is about to be annihilated and what the apocalypse-maker actually is that is going to cause this.

And it seems like there are an endless list of doomsday contenders. Some are natural, like a supervolcano eruption, a major asteroid impact, or a gamma-ray burst. Others are man created, like the threat of a worldwide nuclear war, or catastrophic climate change.

And this fear of what may cause humanity to be extinguished is also extremely prevalent in a lot of people's attitudes as it relates to science. The idea that science is going to create or unleash a Frankenstein that may kill all of us has been around for a couple of centuries, but lately this particular type of scare has grown.

Will biochemists create a germ or virus that could become an extinction level global pandemic? Will roboticists or computer programmers have an insight that may lead to the creation of artificial intelligence that dooms the human race? Will scientists fuse together something in nanotechnology that brings about the demise of the Earth?

These are genuine phobias grounded in our fears of scientific progress and what we know about what science is capable of doing.

The Fear of the Physics Experiment

However, the last twenty years has seen the rise of people being afraid of the science of physics and what it is capable of doing. And it is the experiments by physicists using particle colliders that has become a major fear for many people. A particle collider is a type of particle accelerator that accelerates charged subatomic particles to very high energies for the purpose of colliding these particles into other particles or targets, primarily for research. And while smashing particles at high-energy levels in physics experiments has been going on for over half a century, the general public didn't hold any grim fears of these experiments until recently.

The public becoming concerned about these physics experiments principally came with the creation of both the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) in Upton, New York, and the Large Hadron Collider located near Geneva, Switzerland, and built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider began working in 2000, and the Large Hadron Collider has been up and running since 2008. And while the building of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider generated fears of these types of experiments, it was the building of the Large Hadron Collider that got the general public to become concerned about how these particle colliders might accidently cause the destruction of our world. The idea that the world's most powerful particle collider was going to be able to go much further than any previous collider had gone started to cause people to be nervous about these experiments.

And it was during the building of these machines when some scientists (very, very few, in fact) began to question the safety of high-energy particle collisions. And some of these scientists began arguing the idea that these particle colliders were very dangerous machines that might cause very horrifying scientific accidents. Actually, as mentioned earlier, the focus of this fear was the Large Hadron Collider. And many people first learned about particle collisions and what they can do through a news article mentioning how this or that aspect of these physics experiments could destroy our world.

Physicists who didn't see particle colliders as being safe began warning the public of dire consequences if the Large Hadron Collider was allowed to start doing its experiments: micro black holes might swallow up the Earth, strange matter could eat away our world, vacuum bubbles could destroy our universe, new dimensions would play havoc on our dimensions, and magnetic monopoles might lay waste our planet. And also with these assertions came legal attempts to have the courts not allow the Large Hadron Collider to start up.

Why We Feel Safe

All the particular warnings of what could go wrong were studied by both physicists working for CERN and BNL and also independent commissions and scientists. And they all concluded nothing by this particle-smashing could go wrong. All the doomsday ideas were either refuted one at a time or ignored if they were claims that had no legitimate scientific arguments. Claiming something could occur (like the creation of strange matter) but not having any scientific proof of how this could occur was considered not having a legitimate scientific argument. The most any mainstream scientist would say negatively about these experiments was that these experiments taking place in the lab might produce something different from what occurs in nature because these experiments are being conducted in different conditions from what occurs in nature. And one of the arguments for how these experiments are safe is the argument that these high-energy levels occur in nature and they do not cause us any harm when this happens. Cosmic rays bombard us every day at higher energy levels than what they are creating in these particle accelerators, and these cosmic rays are harmless to us. And when asked of the probability of something going tragically wrong, the scientific community and especially physicists always stated there was only an incredibly tiny, tiny chance of something going wrong, nearly next to nothing, and definitely not something to worry about.

There is universal acceptance in the established and respected science community that these experiments are safe and there is not any real risk of something ever going wrong. Scientists tell us these experiments pose no conceivable threat and that our fears to the contrary are unfounded. We are told that these experiments have almost no risk involved, our planet is safe, and any view that says we are in peril is simply speculative and not credible. And every major scientific and physics organization around the world has given their blessing to these experiments taking place, agreeing these are very safe experiments that do not have any real chance of turning into a self-holocaust. And the courts also have given them permission to continue on with these experiments.

The Danger of Unknown Unknowns

So are these high-energy particle collisions dangerous? Do they pose any genuine risk? Should the average person worry about any of these experiments as an actual threat in his or her life?

So...are we safe?

No, we are not. These are very dangerous experiments that may cause the world's destruction.

And it is unknown unknowns that are the principal reason why these experiments in physics are extremely risky to perform.

There are known knowns. These are things that we know we know. Hydrogen has one proton, Earth revolves around the Sun, John F. Kennedy was an American president. Then there are known unknowns. These are things that we know we don't know. Who first invented the wheel? Is there life on other planets? How many species of fish exist that we don't know about? And then there are unknown unknowns. These are things that we don't know we don't know; in other words, these are things that we are unaware that we don't know. In the past, one unknown unknown was the fact that two or more different types of atoms put together would create a molecule. Another one from the past was that a star can turn into a black hole. Still, another was how cosmic microwave background radiation is all around us. In the past at some point these were things we didn't know we didn't know.

Physicists use the scientific methodology to evaluate something. If I say an experiment will destroy all the krypton on our planet, a physicist will look at my argument and see if it has any scientific truth to it. In this sense physicists are being very cautious and rigorously scientific. When Edward Teller said the Trinity test (first atomic bomb explosion) might cause the Earth's atmosphere to catch fire, Hans Bethe studied this idea and said it couldn't happen and also showed how it was impossible for this to occur. If something is claimed to be true scientifically, other scientists can see if this is true or not true scientifically. This is what scientists did when some scientists said these high-energy particle collision experiments would cause micro black holes to come into existence and swallow up our planet.

And physicists try to minimize the threat of these unknown unknowns by taking into consideration anything that can go wrong and then doing everything necessary to avoid one of these experiments from going disastrously wrong. And so far physicists have been very successful in making sure nothing tragic has taken place at one of these experiments. But this has left them feeling overconfident that they are not ever going to see something go horribly wrong as they dig deeper into nature's puzzles.

But when it comes to unknown unknowns science is helpless and cannot be prepared for these occurrences. It is impossible to assess the risk of an unknown unknown. Sometimes science can only discover what it shouldn't have discovered after it has discovered it! Marie Curie worked for years with radioactivity and did not know it was bad for her when she did this. Unknown unknowns cannot be calculated. And the nature of this unknown unknowns makes it impossible to plan or predict or deal with these unknown unknowns. Here not enough is known to make an estimate of the risks, and sometimes nothing is known. These are variables in the equation that cannot be conceived or studied. Often one cannot use past empirical data, thought experiments, mathematical calculations, or even computer simulations to discover them. And because of this, to a certain degree, every time physics does a major high-energy particle collision test, science is playing Russian roulette, never even knowing what kind of weapon it has in its hand or what type of bullets will be coming out of this thing.

What Science Has Taught Us over the Last Century

If you study how much science has learned since 1916, a century ago, the mind is left staggered. Science has discovered so much over the last century, even to try to exaggerate would be futile and seem to fall short. Science has discovered how billions of galaxies exist, how the Sun works, how our universe is expanding, how we can create new elements ourselves, and what a neutron star is. And examples like these ones could go on for what would seem like is a small eternity.

And several things can be garnered from all this scientific knowledge that we gained over the last century as it pertains to unknown unknowns.

As much as we learned over the last century, so we may learn over the next century. And more and more of this new knowledge will be learned by way of high-energy particle collisions, and more and more of this information will come from particle colliders of a more and more powerful nature. This means we will be recreating and creating more and more things in nature. (I should add that some scientists believe we might be running out of things to learn about nature, but this may be a generation's prejudice. During the Enlightenment many philosophers assumed science would unveil all of nature's mysteries in their generation.)

And so hundreds and thousands of these new experiments will be performed by science. And while some experiments will be safer than others, some of these experiments will be dangerous undertakings and have some real chance of turning catastrophic. And it may only take one experiment to go wrong that causes the end of the human race.

Another thing that can be learned from these discoveries by science as it relates to unknown unknowns is how often science is completely wrong. Almost every major discovery by science crawled over a pyramid of incorrect assumptions. Science can be described as mistakes upon mistakes upon mistakes upon mistakes that eventually lead to not a mistake. The wrong ideas and beliefs scientists held in the twentieth century will be forgotten, but its successes have lived on.

And many times all of the scientific community has been wrong.

When Edward P. Tryon wrote a paper in 1973 saying our universe might have come from a virtual particle created by a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum, his idea was completely rejected and ignored because everyone knew our very large and old universe couldn't come from a tiny virtual particle because these particles only exist for a short duration and never grow as large as our universe.

After it was discovered that we exist in an expanding universe, it was overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community for most of the twentieth century that the expanding of our universe was slowing down. The idea that it was speeding up was not taken very seriously by the world of physics.

And over the last century the strangeness of science has left us speechless. From virtual particles to the idea that our universe may have originated from a quantum nothingness, our universe has proven to be a zoo of weirdness. And as we go deeper into the tiny, this unpredictable bizarreness will continue on, and it is very possible one of these fantastic things that we never saw coming will not only be beyond our reference of understanding but may also cause our species and planet great harm.

And if there is an absolute in scientific research it is this: not everything can be predicted or planned for. Probably the five greatest scientific discoveries over the next century will not come from things we think we don't know, but from things we don't know we don't know. And this unpredictable quality may show its ugly head in a way we never thought could happen. And because we haven't had a major catastrophe in the past should be of little comfort to us. For tomorrow's experimental results may be completely different from the test results we got today, especially because many of these types of experiments are completely different from the experiments that went before them.

Why These Types of Physics Experiments Are So Dangerous

And these particular types of physics experiments are even more prone to causing accidents that may have a profound effect on nature because these experiments deal with the microphysical world. Often in nature the smaller something is, the greater effect it has. The microphysical affects the macrophysical. The smaller things in nature create bigger things. Atoms lead to molecules. And if physicists cause the smallest change in the wrong way, this may not only affect a tiny thing in our universe, but something larger than even our planet. And only recently have we learned that in the small a particle can turn into a universe, space has energy, and gravity can inflate itself. Physics has become a search into the madness of the small, despite and because of the risks.

It is also what physicists are studying that makes these experiments so dangerous. Physics is trying to reveal the mysteries of nature, seeking to understand how the laws of science work, probing what is the true essence of our universe. And to do this work scientifically, physics requires such experiments be made where the building blocks of nature begin. And in their quest to find a single force that could explain everything, they must work with changing matter and space and time at its most fundamental level, which may turn out to have catastrophic repercussions for humans. And it should be stressed: these high-energy particle collisions don't just observe something in nature, but interact with nature, creating and recreating things. And just bringing something out of its natural place in nature may also have devastating consequences that we are not prepared to deal with. Presently, they are trying to recreate the same conditions of our early universe. And these physics experiments have "recreated" matter that has not existed since the very birth of our universe (quark-gluon plasma) and created temperatures over 4 trillion degrees Celsius, 250,000 times hotter than the center of our Sun.

How Could This Type of Accident Actually Happen

These experiments are designed to produce new particles and new forms of matter, sometimes things not ever seen or ever known, either in nature or in the laboratory. Sometimes these experiments confirm what we think we know (the Standard Model of particle physics), or predict something to be found in nature (the Higgs boson), but they also discover things that we have never even seen, not indirectly or even fictionally. Most of the time these new things will be very harmless; sometimes they will be very important and amazing; and maybe once in a long while one of these things may cause or unleash something that will be very harmful to us and our planet.

What if something grows exponentially, causes a runaway chain reaction, creates a phase transition (water turning into ice but much worse), acts in a very harmful way we never could have foreseen, turns into a catalyst that starts a disruption of something we didn't even know existed, forms something that isn't created in nature that is very bad for our local place in the universe, or begins a series of events that eventually changes our planet's ability to sustain life?

As mentioned earlier, there are many strange and not understood parts of our universe, and some of these things are not good for our planet or the humans that exist on this sphere. But in our desire to find new forms of matter, we may accidentally cause something to decay at the speed of light in a way we do not as yet understand; or, in our search for new particles, we may alter a part of our universe into a fantasticality that no one could have ever predicted. I have been speaking of things that resemble what we know, but the truth is it is most likely impossible or nearly impossible to describe what the dynamics or nature of this accident will look like because it will most assuredly be something that we have never experienced before.

The Horror of the Situation

But is there anything anyone can do to stop this monster from actually nightmaring itself into our world?

No, it will just have to be another unthinkable horror that we live with. Scientists can take all the precautions that they like, but these unknown unknowns will still be a threat no matter what they do. We live with horror and the unthinkable every day and every moment, and now we must live with another unthinkable horror.

As I am writing this, the Large Hadron Collider is just starting up for another round of tests. But there is some nice news to this story. There is a very real chance this might never occur. And even if it does happen in our lifetimes, there is some chance it will occur instantaneously. And because this unspeakable cataclysm may one day turn into a fact, someone should put a plaque over the Large Hadron Collider that says: "We promise not to destroy the world...but if we do, don't worry, it will be over before you knew it ever happened."