The Black Hole of Publicity

Media coverage of LHC produces bigger bang than new collider

The biggest bang to come out of the Large Hadron Collider, which began operating in Europe yesterday, was the media coverage itself. There are thousands of articles and blog posts available online comprising reams of text, videos, photo slideshows, audio files, and interactive graphics. As a discrete spate of reporting, it is definitely in the running for biggest science story of the year.

That shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Located 300 meters below French-Swiss border, in a circular tunnel that is seventeen miles in diameter, the LHC is the world’s biggest and most powerful particle collider. It is designed to accelerate protons to nearly the speed of light and smash them together in order to recreate the fiery conditions that existed just after the Big Bang, when the universe was born. Physicists hope that it will do many things, not least of which is producing the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” that is theorized to endow all matter with mass. This would help scientists complete the Standard Model, which describes all fundamental particles and forces in the universe. However, the worry that the LHC could also produce a miniature black hole, which could devour the entire planet, drove a lot, if not most, of the news coverage.

“Talk about a public relations problem,” wrote Der Spiegel in an online story. “Imagine spending years sinking vast quantities of money, time and ambition into an intricately complex project only to face accusations just before the project’s debut that you might accidentally bring about the end of the world.”

Most physicists agree there is no reason to panic. And, save for a few scientifically ignorant articles like those in The Guardian and The Sun in the U.K., the press almost universally discredited the black-hole doomsday scenarios. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the hype was less about the ‘Greatest Physics Experiment Of All Time’, and more about people’s fears that it could be the most dangerous since the atomic bomb. On the other hand, the LHC’s inauguration might not have been such a big deal without all the worry. Nothing really happened yesterday except the first successful test beam (no smashing) and, as a physicist at Chicago’s Fermilab (which had the biggest atom smasher until yesterday) told The New York Times’s Dennis Overbye, “Bad publicity is still publicity.”

Not that black-hole fears don’t deserve some serious coverage. Indeed, at least two lawsuits have attempted to halt research at the LHC and CERN scientists have received death threats from people who say they don’t want the work to go forward. One can dismiss those extremists as irrational, but as Overbye reported for the Times in April, there is still a small group of levelheaded scientists and environmentalists who think physicists and their government sponsors can be a little too cavalier about these things.

While one might argue that the media made too much of the doomsday argument, given rather small size of the official protest, there is obviously some real public misunderstanding about this technology. If the LHC really could open a wormhole (unlikely, but check out this eccentric piece), one could go back and see that this has been an issue for a long time. Exactly seven years ago today (a tragic and obviously distracting day, to say the least), George Johnson had an excellent, long article in The New York Times that explained how worry had dogged the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. in 1998. The thrust of his well-reported piece, however, was why, far from avoiding their creation, “Physicists strive to build a black hole:”

If black holes can be manufactured and studied in captivity, physicists will be able to test ideas in the hinterlands of understanding. The black holes are so tiny that they would obey the laws of quantum mechanics, but their gravity is so powerful that they must also obey general relativity. By observing how the two theories interact, physicists could see if they were just different manifestations of a more general law.

Johnson’s article is actually about the LHC, which was in the early (and over budget) stages of construction in 2001. So the doomsday debate, which’s Alan Boyle has tracked in number of blog posts over the last two years, has been garnering publicity for the collider for a long time. With that in mind, the most important question about the current cornucopia of coverage is not, is all publicity good publicity for CERN, but rather: Has the press actually helped public understanding of particle physics or just perpetuated old worries?

Fortunately, unlike black holes, a lot of light escaped from the world’s news holes over the last few days (though the best piece of writing on the subject may still be last year’s Elizabeth Kolbert’s exposé in The New Yorker). There have been many excellent features, analyses, photos, interviews, and interactive graphics. But fun time is over. One disappointing aspect of the straight news coverage of the LHC’s first beam test was that, depending on whom you read, it cost anywhere between $4 billion to $10 billion. Anyway you slice it, that’s a lot of money, and proof of two things: that CERN will have to earn its publicity from now on, and that journalists have responsibility to explain how its fancy new collider does or doesn’t pay off.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.