Published on: April 18, 2008
Not a good week to be an inhabitant of planet Earth.
Wars continue to be fought. Human rights controversies impinge on the upcoming summer Olympics games in Beijing. Energy is increasingly expensive. Food, for almost everybody, costs more and more. In some cases, foods of certain kinds are becoming harder to find. The list goes on and on, and I won’t even get into US domestic politics.
Makes it sort of hard to be an optimist.
And then, just when you think things can't get much worse, comes the news, published by the Los Angeles Times
, that an $8 billion particle accelerator, also known as a super collider, built on the France-Switzerland border in 300-foot-deep tunnel and that is 17 miles long, may have a tiny downside to it when the thing is activated this summer.
Yes, the particle accelerator “will send particles crashing into each other at just a wink shy of the speed of light, generating energies more powerful than the sun.” And yes, it may be able to allow scientists to “peer into a looking-glass world that could contain entrances to extra dimensions and super-massive partners of the familiar particles that make up our world. One creature that must be hiding there, the scientists say, is the Higgs particle, one of the most exotic undiscovered objects since the yeti.” (I have no idea what any of this means, but it certainly sounds impressive. And important. And makes me wish I’d been a better science student, rather than learning everything I know about scientific theory from Star Trek
But it also could – emphasize the word could
- create a black hole.
Actually, let me give it to you the way the Times
wrote it, because it is so much more impressive:
“Critics think the collider could also spawn a black hole that will swallow Earth. That could be just an appetizer. Once the collider got going, according to the doomsday scenario, it could gobble up distant stars like a child popping Skittles.”
Okay, the good news is that if this were actually to happen, nobody would be worrying about $4 gasoline, food shortages would seem like a puny issue, and we’d never have to watch another Obama-Clinton debate.
But the bad news would be that…well, the bad news would be so, so bad, that suddenly $4 gasoline wouldn’t seem like such a high price to pay. Would sound pretty damn good, in fact.
The LA Times
story is a calm, reasoned and lengthy (2500+ words) piece of journalism, which itself I find sort of amazing. Because when I read it, my reaction was two words – neither of which I can use here. (Actually, I can tell you the first word. It was “holy.”)
An what makes this really sort of extraordinary is that the scientist who created this spectacular super collider – a man with the equally spectacular name of Michelangelo L. Mangano – concedes that this could happen. Again, emphasis on the word could
Again, from the Times
Mangano says that “any black hole would be so tiny that it wouldn't be able to get its teeth around a bit of local chevre cheese, let alone the world.
“Still, if a black hole were produced at all, ‘that would be an extremely spectacular result,’ he said, a half-smile creeping across his face.”
And then he says the following:
"Look, what if I told you tomorrow when you shave you will blow up the world? You laugh. You say that can't happen. But how do you know?
"The only thing we know is that there have been about a million billion shaves since people started shaving and the world is still here. So all we can say is the probability of you blowing up the world when you shave tomorrow is less than one in 1015."
I want to take Michelangelo L. Mangano on faith, because I believe in science and I believe in scientists.
But I have to say, while I’m not sure what the odds are of this thing destroying the universe as we all know it…whatever they are, I’m not crazy about them.
If this were not enough to shake my belief system, then came the news that a 13-year-old German student named Nico Marquardt had done a little figuring and discovered that when NASA scientists calculated the odds on the asteroid Apophis hitting the earth in about 20 years as one in 45,000 (which already doesn’t sound like great odds to me), they got it a little bit wrong. The actual odds, according to Marquardt, were more like one 450.
This bit of scientific wizardry hit the newswires and was instantly all over the planet, with young Marquardt becoming an overnight celebrity. And then, as the story unfolded, there ever were stories suggesting that NASA agreed with his calculations.
I was sitting in Barcelona reading these stories, and my reaction was pretty much the same as when I read about the super collider.
Now, as I check the wires this morning, the story seems to have changed a bit, with Marquardt’s calculations being challenged and NASA saying that it never agreed with his numbers.
But here’s what I find interesting.
First of all, it took absolutely no effort at all to convince a lot of people that a 13-year-old was smarter than NASA. And I’d be willing to bet that a lot of people thought that NASA lied about the 45,000 to one odds in the first place because it didn’t want to panic anyone. (Sort of the same way that a lot of people believe that the FDA and USDA are lying about mad cow disease in the US.)
And even now, as I see that NASA isn’t backing down, I’m not taking their odds on faith. Because I’m not inclined to believe anybody anymore.
Besides, it may not matter. Because if the super collider creates that black hole, 20 years from now there may not be an Earth for Apophis to hit.
In a week when faith in science has been challenged, I must tell you about a book that I found to be profoundly moving on a variety of levels, and which I urge you to buy, to read, and to pass along to friends and family.
“The Last Lecture” is based on a lecture given by Carnegie Mellon University Professor Randy Pausch as part of a series of talks given by teachers that were supposed to be what they would say if they had the opportunity for a final imparting of wisdom to their students, friends and loved ones. It could be about anything, but essentially had to reflect whatever that teacher’s priorities were.
In Randy Pausch’s case, however, it really was a last lecture…because he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and despite numerous treatments, he had not been given long to live.
Now, Pausch’s “last lecture” was videotaped and made it onto the Internet, where I suggest you find it and watch it. The talk takes about 70 minutes, but it is worth every moment – never maudlin, and always about hopes and dreams and turning those two things into realities. It has become an enormous hit on the web, watched by millions of people and ABC News did a one-hour special about it.
I am not a sentimental person, and books like these don’t usually appeal to me. (“Tuesdays With Morrie,” for example, just wasn't my cup of tea.) But I have become addicted to the death – and more importantly, to the life – of Randy Pausch, and I think it is because he is first and foremost a natural teacher. I envy the students who have had him in the classroom, and I think we are lucky to have him not just offering a “last lecture,” but a kind of graduate course in living.
“The Last Lecture” has made me think about my parents, my wife, and my kids. It has made me think about my life and my priorities. And it has made me wonder if I could face the same circumstances that Randy Pausch is dealing with, and do so with the same kind of grace and equanimity.
All good questions, I think.
Perhaps most remarkable for a book that is about impending death, it has a happy ending of sorts. A happy ending that made me shed a tear.
Read this book. Watch the lecture. Take the course.
One final note. When I came to Barcelona this week, I brought my 13-year-old daughter, Allison, who happened to be off from school. And it was the best decision I could have made, because it has given us special time together as we’ve walked the streets of this marvelous city, tried to speak Spanish, dealt with hail storms and both fought off bad colds. Because we’ve also had ice cream for breakfast, found perhaps the world’s greatest chocolate shop (“Cacao Sampaka”), watched the moon rise over the Mediterranean, kidded and teased and just enjoyed moments that come too rarely and might never come again, as “The Last Lecture” and the stories about the super collider and the asteroid certainly makes clear in dramatically different ways.
For me, it was a great week to be an inhabitant of Planet Earth.
Before I left, an executive with whom I was chatting said that he’d always meant to take his kids on business trips, but never had, and now they were grown and it was too late.
“Too late.” I hate those words.
I’ve been lucky enough to have taken each of my three kids on at least a couple of trips over the years. If you haven’t, I urge you to find a way. It is worth the effort.
Take it on faith.
That’s it for this week. I’ll be back in the states on Monday, and will see you then with an all-new edition of MorningNewsBeat.
In the meantime, have a great weekend.