Apocalypse Not Now

Apocalyptic prophecies – from Y2K to Mayan baktuns – divert resources and attention from more consequential scientific developments and debates. As journalism shifts toward sensationalism over empiricism, doomsday panics are becoming increasingly frequent – and increasingly damaging.

PRINCETON – Recently, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, located near Geneva at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) – announced that the celebrated discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson was indeed the Higgs boson. Now, the standard model of particle physics is complete, except for one important thing: black holes.

Four years ago, doomsayers forecast that the LHC would produce microscopic black holes that would swallow the Earth in a matter of months. The latter-day Nostradamuses provoked widespread fear, not to mention lawsuits, about high-energy particle physics experiments.

These prophets were, of course, neither the first nor the last of their species. In 2000, their forebears predicted that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider would create weird hypothetical particles known as strangelets, which would quickly transform Earth into a hot, dense lump of strange matter. One needs hardly mention last year’s Mayan end-of-the-world carnival, which shares with the other no-show catastrophes roughly the same level of absurdity.

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