Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The end of the world, postponed

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, September 24, 2008

It's tempting to say it like this:

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), maybe the most complex machine ever built (no doubt, the most expensive one, almost 6 billion dollars), product of the collaboration of more than 20 Countries, which took almost 20 years to build and was feared, when it is started operations, to cause a planetary catastrophe… is out of order.

An electrical failure caused that nine of its one thousand conducting magnets to overheat and melt, causing a helium leak. This gas, in a liquid state, maintains the magnet's temperature at two degrees above absolute zero. These magnets accelerate protons to make them spin at 99.9 of light speed around the underground ring of 27 kilometers (11 thousand rounds per second).

All that scandal for nothing?

But this version of the story, though tasty, is uninformed and simplistic. And misinformation can be a big problem: a young Indian woman, terrorized by the scandalous media reports about the possibility that the LHC would create a mini black hole that would swallow the earth, committed suicide by ingesting pesticide. It wasn't necessary.

The truth is that the start of operations of the Hadron (particles, like protons and neutrons, formed by the union of several quarks) Collider on September 10 did not represent any risk: it was only a test. Streams of protons were injected to start spinning, but were not made to collide.

When the real experiment is carried out - it's been postponed until spring, 2009 - there will be no risk, either. The probability of creating mini black holes is insignificant, and even if these were produced, they would disappear instantaneously, as they are very unstable.

The LHC will be useful to try to discover why matter has mass (and if the theoretical particle called Higgs boson, which would explain this property, really exists). It will also help to obtain a better understanding of the origin of the universe and the nature of “dark matter” and antimatter.

Has the LCH failed? Not so. Failures like these are a "psychological punch" for its creators, but were foreseen.

All technology requires an adjustment period. When the LHC functions properly, it will give answers to some of the most fundamental questions about the universe. But, as always in science, it is a long term investment.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Science and society

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published on
Milenio Diario, September 3, 2008

Common sense prevailed. After considering many arguments, eight ministers from the Mexican Supreme Court voted to declare that the reforms to the Criminal Code and the Health Law of Mexico City that legalize abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy are constitutional.

The reforms are thus safe from attacks, and the way is open for other states to modify their laws to extend women's liberties throughout the Country.

Opponents to the legalization insisted in reducing the debate to a conflict between women's and embryo's rights. The ministers recognized that this was a fallacy: life in development is worthy of protection, but its not yet a human life. Women's rights are the only ones at risk here.

In the debate, scientific knowledge about the process of gestation and the necessary conditions for considering that there is human life –particularly, the existence of a central nervous system, together with considerations about the difficult situation of women that opt for abortion, properly developed and functional– was central for reaching the decision that we now celebrate.

The important of science in controversies that affect our society will keep growing. We already have discussions related with health and sexuality –transsexuals, stem cell research, euthanasia, cloning… and more to come: alternative energy (solar, geothermal, nuclear), contamination garbage handling and toxic waste, transgenic crops…

In all of these cases, some decisions have to be taken. Only people who understand, at least in principle, the relation between science and technology with each of these issues can have a responsible opinion. If the average citizen does not have a minimum of scientific culture, the discussion will be left in the hands of experts and politicians.

It is urgent to democratize scientific and technical knowledge: to put it in the hands of the public. The legalization of abortion was achieved in great part thanks to the information and education campaigns launched by its defenders. In debates to come, the job of scientific journalists, science writers and educators will be crucial to allow our citizens to participate in the decision making that will affect society.

Let's not forget: science is also part of democracy.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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