Apocalypse Not Now

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.

These prophesies share something else as well. Whenever an apocalyptic prediction fizzles, the doomsayers remain strangely silent – until the next opportunity to capture the public’s imagination. The new millennium did not bring down airplanes or knock out power grids; but no software engineer has confessed that the Y2K scare was a con – or at least a serious mistake – that cost the United States alone an estimated $300 billion. On the contrary, some have begun to warn that, in 2038, certain computer software and systems will experience “integer overflow,” causing them to report negative system times and, in turn, to fail.