Wow, I thought the worry that the LHC might destroy the world was amusing, like most predictions of the end of the world. It turns out people have been sending actual death threats to LHC researchers.
The annoying part of this is that just a couple people (who Mark correctly identifies as crackpots) have managed to generate a storm of publicity. There are pieces in the Times, the other Times, and the Guardian to pick the first three I could find. The WorldNut Daily even ran a poll with… well… “interesting” responses.
What’s even more annoying is that this has happened before. In 1999 a similar media storm surrounded the start-up of RHIC, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which has been operating happily for many years now without destroying the world. Take a look at those links; you could do a search and replace changing “RHIC” to “LHC” and it would look exactly like the articles published in the last few days. (RHIC has a leg up on the LHC so far, since no one has yet produced a novel about the current iteration of doomsday.) The key part is that it’s not just the same notion, but some of the same people promoting it. Walter L. Wagner, one of the people who has filed suit to shut down the LHC, was one of the main instigators of the noise about RHIC. (A similar suit in the EU, asking for an injunction to halt operations, has thankfully been thrown out.) They were wrong then, and for the same reasons.
So, why is so much attention being paid to this story? It’s clearly the case that “Machine might destroy the world” is a better attention grabber than “Breaking news: science experiment still ready to begin operations”, but that fails to answer for me why people with so little credibility are given so much time in the press.
(There’s also the question of why so many physicist bloggers are taking on the story. Of course, it might be something eminently reasonable like “because it’s all over the newspapers and more, and we need to get some real information out there.” I think there’s more to it than that, and it can be summed up by two words: “creationist envy”. This epic battle with The Crazy won’t last long, but for now physicists get to live it up like the biologists.)