Doomed Planet

A Tale of Two Disciplines


Physics and climate science 


As a demonstration of how to present scientific discovery and understanding, the contrast between the possible discovery of the Higgs particle and climate science progress could not be more different.  

In late December 2011, two large groups of scientists, including Australians, working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva announced that there was some initial evidence for the Higgs particle. This particle, dubbed by Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman as the “goddamn particle”, is politely referred to as the “God particle” as it is theorized to be the “field” particle that gives mass to all fundamental particles. The relationship is like the “field” particles for electromagnetic forces, the photons that interact with electric charges, their sources. The fundamental particles are the building blocks for protons and neutrons that are the building blocks for the elements that are the building blocks for molecules that are assembled into living things. So this is really down in the basement of the Universe, where the Higgs object has given us our mass if not our gravity. 

This development has not occurred without some difficulties. The initial and outstanding objection was the call by many including Richard Posner, a US Federal Court judge for an examination of the risks involved in operating the Collider. The worry was that the Collider might create a black hole or objects, some called stranglets, that would gobble up the entire earth in a matter of seconds. Various learned societies discussed the matter, subcommittees did their calculations and the conclusion was that the chance of complete destruction was small. The President of the Royal Society estimated the probability as 1 in 50 million. This was not good enough for some given the consequences of a wrong calculation! 

This “end of the world” problem was faced when the first controlled chain reaction experiment was performed at the University of Chicago by Enrico Fermi. Fermi talked to the head of the “Metallurgical Laboratory”, Arthur Compton, as one physicist and Nobel Prize winner to another. Fermi explained the risk of a runaway reaction but also his cautious approach. Compton is reported as closing the conversation by saying to Fermi “you and I understand the risks, why don’t you proceed”. There was a pause and Compton added “a lot of us don’t like living on the southside of Chicago, we would have to move if it went wrong so go ahead”. 

With the first hydrogen bomb test, again the worry was would the planet be destroyed by the oceans catching fire from all their hydrogen. Gregory Breit, a theoretical physicist supposed to have never made an arithmetical error in his life headed a group that addressed this question. Their conclusion was that a chain reaction of hydrogen in the oceans was not possible. The test went ahead. 

So too the Large Hadron Collider was turned on, beams of protons collided with each other and the world did not end. 

What is more we were led to the putative discovery of the Higgs. The physicists now making preliminary claims are very cautious. They quote the significance of their discovery at two and a half standard deviations above background. That is a chance of 1 in 100 of the discovery being a random fluctuation of the background. This is making some assumptions about the probability distribution. So they are properly cautious as people have been misled before, claiming results that were not confirmed by more accurate work. 

This story makes an interesting contrast to the claims of impending doom from climate change. 

There is, as for the Large Hadron Collider, the doomsday predictions of the end of the planet as we know it. But scientists started the Collider and we are all still here. With climate change, fossil fuels are blamed for the increasing temperatures that will ultimately damage the planet. Yet while we are using more fossil fuels the temperature does not appear to be rising as projected. We have survived so far. 

Turning to the discovery of the Higgs, the estimated certainty for the discovery is 99%. This level of probability would qualify for “virtually certain” for the IPCC yet this is judged not to be sufficient proof for physicists. 

Look at the claim that the use of fossil fuels explains the earth’s temperature rise since industrialization. The certainty is “estimated” (and this estimate includes expert opinions) to be 90% and styled “very likely” by the IPCC. Governments are taking action to protect the environment based on this level of certainty, urged on by climate scientists. But the same governments will not accept this level of certainty for the introduction of new drugs. 

So we have two putative world ending actions. One has not occurred and may have enabled a remarkable discovery while the jury is still out on the other. But the contrast in the actions of the physicists compared to the climate scientists is remarkable. 

The claims of climate scientists will take them into the realm of some astrophysicists who are judged “often wrong but never in doubt”.

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