Apocalypsis du Jour,
The Project Syndicate intends, someday, to publish some version of this. In the meantime, here’s the original. People who believe that what they read in magazines and journals is what authors wrote, should take note.
Now that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has uncovered the Higgs boson, the standard model of particle physics is complete, except for one thing: black holes. Those of you with infinite memories will recall the enormous flap four long years ago over the possibility that microscopic black holes produced by the LHC would swallow the Earth in a matter of months, rendering superfluous this past year’s widely anticipated annihilation. Of course, the proximity of the LHC’s startup to the end of the just-expired cycle of time can hardly be coincidental and one is inexorably drawn to the conclusion that the fatal holes themselves were Mayan predictions. (There are those who credit Nostradamus.)
Apocalypses may come and go, but the pace of forgetting George Santayana’s oft quoted, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” does appear to be increasing. In the past decade alone we have been extinguished by Y2K registers, Mayan baktuns, LHC strangelets and black holes, not to mention black holes caused by relativistic ion colliders, as well as the forthcoming 2038 integer overflow (be warned).
Striking has been the silence of the doomsayers emeriti. In the decade since we waited breathlessly for airplanes to drop out of the sky at midnight January 1, 2000, no software engineer has stepped forward to confess that Y2K was an Armageddon invented to bilk the US out of an estimated $300 billion. Judgment Day averted or Judgment Day designed? The Wall St. Journal, at least, labeled Y2K “the hoax of the century” (the Journal may be optimistic). The difficulty in laying Y2K to rest points to the first burning question raised by renascent apocalypticism: Are we witnessing a mere acceleration of forgetfulness, consistent with the acceleration of all other aspects of modern life? Or does before our eyes hurtle an accelerating charlatanism masquerading as science, closer to Marx’s celebrated observation that historical events occur twice, first as tragedy, then as farce? (Whatever the answer, meticulous detective work will surely establish that behind last year’s misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar stood some Yucatan hoteliers intent on cleaning up on End of the World parties.)
Focus more seriously, or not, on the ragnakyngja, the swallowing of the gods by black holes. Here, too, no one has confessed error. Not a single pleasing “I was wrong; I misunderstood black-hole physics; I should have kept my mouth shut” has lofted through the ether. Genuine scientists, yes, may wince before acknowledging mistakes, but sooner or later the inexorable stranglehold of reality compels them to fess up. If you, in all innocence, confront a black-hole prophet, my crystal ball predicts that the words issuing from his lips will be, to the contrary, “The LHC won’t be running at full energy for several years. Behold, thou shalt repent and thou shalt perish!”
I’m not being altogether facetious. Each time I publish an essay on science, a dozen or two messiahs benevolently rain upon me their heaven-sent wisdom. Though their texts are inscribed in stone, as it were, they are invariably characterized by a lack of higher mathematics (or in the case of the black-hole sentinels, elevated but meaningless mathematics), just as the messiahs themselves are characterized by, well, messianic conviction. On the occasions when I have been foolish enough to redistribute these missives among their creators, apologetically suggesting that they sort out such weighty matters among themselves, each candidate-savior assures me that he and he alone is the Alpha and the Omega. Anyone stretching toward Omegadom must, naturally, be persistent. One fellow practically crossed the Atlantic to force me to read his commandments and has not ceased his efforts since.
Is charlatanism rising? The answer to the first burning question may hardly be straightforward, but a savant can nevertheless proclaim without fear of contradiction (annihilation?) that anyone wanting to learn whether the world is in danger of digestion by black holes would do better to search for the truth in psychology rather than physics.
Thus behold the second burning question raised by the current cycle of auguries: Why do reporters pay more homage to evangelists of doom than to scientists? One hesitates even to suggest, nay hint, that the media show less interest in truth than in controversy—the traditional “who, what, , where, when, why and how” of journalism having in the past decade surrendered to “for each opinion an anti-opinion.” Journalists are, in any event, underequipped to resolve what superficially appear to be scientific issues and they must rely on experts. Do they? Personally, I’ve seen little evidence in favor. One does suspect that journalists give oracles a loose rein because they experience a certain solidarity with their brethren: Pundits and prophets alike enjoy spouting off far more than they do repenting. It is a dead certainty that once a story becomes news, no self-respecting journalist wants to be left behind the pack.
As a miserable result, we find ourselves in a circus where the only arguments heard above the clamor are those from authority or, perhaps more accurately, from pretenders, come one, come all. When the black hole flap originally broke four years ago, I wrote that a respected Russian physicist, Grigory Vilkovisky, claimed to have proven, contrary to Stephen Hawking’s celebrated result, that black holes do not completely radiate away their mass, but evaporate only about half. If Vilkovisky were correct, it would not only radically alter our ideas about black hole physics, but “any black holes created at CERN might actually survive long enough to be taken seriously.” A poor choice of words. I intended “seriously as a scientific phenomenon.” Inevitably, I was taken to mean “seriously as a threat to Earth.” Worse, the entire online debate revolved around Vilkovisky’s credentials or mine.
All of which, in principle, was noise. In science, ex cathedra arguments fall on deaf ears, or so such tales come down to us from legendary times. Papal infallibility goes unrecognized and only argument from data, from principles, from mathematics counts. The single issue was whether Vilkovisky was right or wrong, not whether he is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. But sadly and realistically, even scientists are incapable of reaching informed conclusions in areas beyond the horizon of their expertise, and we cannot expect more of journalists or the citizenry. (For the record, Vilkovisky’s reaction to the black hole ferment was, “It isn’t worth a plugged nickel.”)
While there is pleasure in participating in an unceasing, carnivalian Dance of Death, amidst our raucous festivities we should not forget that cataclysms, even imaginary ones, have consequences. Raise a toast to the laudable scientists who expended man-years refuting the black hole claims, yea man-years, when they thirsted to pursue other research; cast an eye on the lawsuits waged to prevent the LHC from operating, lawsuits that doubtlessly involve millions of dollars and that continue to the present. Then behold the third burning question: What are we to do about the perpetuum apocalypsi cum Saturnalia which envelopes us?
The most reasonable answer might be to enjoy it. But as the noisy, festive day grows momentarily silent, those of sober disposition can counter that many scientific issues are orders of magnitude more serious than rampaging black holes and Mayan calendars. As the century progresses, nuclear power safety, the safety of biological research and similar concerns will become ever more important and their impact extends far beyond the confines of the scientific community itself. Courts are poor venues to settle such disputes because they are hamstrung by jurisdictional wrangling and because technical testimony extends beyond the judges’ expertise. We can imagine an international tribunal or clearing house in the Hague, along the lines of Doctors Without Borders, which appoints disinterested panels to hear each case. Such a body may work, although it is unlikely to be cheap. In the meantime, scientists need to abandon their dismissive attitudes towards public concerns, attitudes that have not helped their own cause and journalists need to adopt an attitude of perspicacity rather than contention. Most of all, prophets should be expected to offer up at least a bottle of champagne and an expiration date on their predictions, with the promise that if on that date the prophecy turns up bust, they will shut up once and for all. Then maybe the rest of us might be able to get a good night’s sleep—and expect to wake up in the morning.
Tony Rothman currently teaches physics at Princeton University. His latest book is Firebird, a novel set in a fusion-research laboratory. Follow on Twitter @TonyRothman1.