STATIC DISCLAIMER: All the stuff in here is purely my opinions, and they tend to change depending on what mood I'm in. If you're going to get bitter if I say something about you that you don't like, then maybe don't read. I avoid using names as much as possible, and would request that people who know me do the same in their comments. Basically, I often vent my frustrations on here, so if you happen to be someone who frustrates me, expect to read a description of someone very much like you in here!

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Science Of Things

"I don't know what they're gonna think of next
genetic engineers are the most high tech..."
~ Switchfoot, "Adding to the Noise"

The above lyric, I can relate to. I find it a little disconcerting that the most valued scientists on the "cutting edge" at this point in time are working on ways to modify the very building blocks of life. As a Christian, the idea that someone would desire to mess with something that God set up to create and maintain life is scary. What's worse, is when society as a whole holds up those people as those with the most to offer society. I mean, 15 years ago it was rocket scientists and astronauts who held this position of status, but once we realised that space wasn't going to offer us the elixir of eternal life any time soon, we quickly moved them onto the bench. Now, I saw geneticists starting to do things that I could see might begin to encroach on the lives of individuals, and I started to feel a bit like "What gives them the right to mess with someone's life?!?" I mean, to create a clone for example? That person will be a new individual, in someone else's body. It's just not right, and I think human cloning is generally regarded as not a good idea, but as scientists slowly push the envelope, I'm sure eventually society will "come around".

However, here's the thing. Taking liberties with an individuals life is one thing, but here's something that blew me away. I got an email from a friend that had a link to this wonderfully humorous and yet slightly disturbing website about ways to destroy the earth. The thing about the site is that all the ways listed are completely plausible, even though the time and resources involved might be (well, are) beyond a lifetime's work, or the skills/attributes of a human being. So anyways, one of the options is to "create a stable strangelet", using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider(RHIC) at the Brookhaven National laboratory. Now the question is, what is a strangelet? It's a particular form of quark matter, that if a negatively charged instance formed, would devour all matter in the universe. There is no known theory that could cause it to stop.
That scares me.

Now, people have put forward the notion that this RHIC thing is dangerous. That there's the possibility, however remote, that it could form a mini-black hole, or a change in the vacuum state of the universe, along with this strangelet business. So they did a study and wrote a paper arguing that it won't happen. Here's my problem with this:

Science is, in essence, a group of ideas that remain true until proven false. So people do experiments over and over to see that they get the same result; whilever the result is the same, the theory remains true. You get a failure, suddenly it's not true. This has happened time and time again, and scientists constantly are reassessing the details of what they hold to be true.

So the above mentioned paper, talks about how the scientists feel the chance of this stuff happening is so remote, it's impossible. Check this quote:

The hypothetical chain of events that might lead to a catastrophe at RHIC requires several independent, robust theoretical arguments to be wrong simultaneously.

Right. So you've got 4 iron struts supporting a 1Kg weight, but if the weight falls to the ground, the universe is destroyed. I have to say, I wouldn't be putting the weight up there. Even if the chance is one in a googolplex that it'll happen, you could fluke it and have it happen in the first 10 minutes. And then no more universe...

Here's another fun one:

Such rough calculations cannot answer the delicate question of whether or not strange matter is bound at zero external pressure reliably. Stability seems unlikely, but not impossible.

"...unlikely, but not impossible"?? Once again with the scary.

Now, if you bothered to read the paper, you'll know that they basically ruled out black holes, and vacuum disruption, and said that the chance of a strangelet forming are close to nil. Mind you, again, science is by definition theories that remain true until proven false. If any of the theories these arguments are based on gets proved wrong at the RHIC, we're not going to know about it for long.

My question in all of this is simple: If someone suggests that maybe there is the rarest of chances that something you're doing could destroy the universe, why would you continue? This isn't science fiction here... there's a plausible (however unlikely) argument that we could all be transformed into quark plasma by a rampaging negatively charged strangelet. So I say yay for science. Yay for people taking chances with life, and now, the universe. And what for? So we can look at ourselves and say "Aren't we good? Look what we found out!" Hrm. I'm not convinced.

1 comment:

Nathan Zamprogno said...

Yeah, boo evil science (cue flaming torches and angry peasants storming dark castle with farm implements).

I worked out that both my parents, my wife and my son would all be dead if civilisation had the same attitude to medicine as they did in the middle ages. Each have required some level of medical intervention in their lives, ranging from serious (cancer) to trivial (infection). Each, however could have ended in death had not someone, somewhere challenged the dogma that illness was a sign from God and that something could (and should) be done.

Fast forward a thousand years, and scientists are tinkering with the building blocks of life. If your nearest and dearest had an infection, would you eschew the use of antibiotics? What if cloning his pancreas in a vat from stem cells saves him from a life with diabetes? If your answers differed, then why? (Fully rhetorical question, BTW. Not wishing to start a flame war, just some thinking)

As for rogue subatomic particles swallowing the universe, I apply the Anthropic Principle. Assuming that in a Universe of our size that life has existed somewhere over the last 10 billion years with more advanced technology than us (and at least an equal propensity as us to tinker with it), then the impossibility of creating a strangelet that will gobble everything up is demonstrated by the simple fact that the Universe is still here.

If this proof allows you to carry less angst in your life, consider the service free of charge.