Why people fear particle accelerators

Author Kristine Larsen does herself a bit of a disservice with the subtitle to her new book, Particle Panic!, which she styles as How popular media and popularised science feed public fears of particle accelerator experiments.

As far as it goes, it’s accurate enough, but it fails by some considerable stretch to capture the breadth of subject matter covered in this thoroughly enjoyable volume.

Larsen is a physicist who currently holds a professorship in geology at the Central Connecticut State University in the US. She is also a prolific and polymathic author, having penned works on nineteenth century female geologists, the mythological dimensions of Neil Gaiman’s novels and of Dr Who, and a biography of Stephen Hawking, among others.

The intersection of science and pop culture evident in her past work is a solid clue to the contents of Particle Panic!. In just 194 pages she delivers a delightfully detailed survey of the many ways in which quantum mechanics, string theory, dark matter, colliders and cosmology have been pressed into service in the name of popular entertainment.

These are always in very nasty contexts, wherein accelerators – often modelled on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva – malfunction, explode, implode, create uncontrollable black holes, invert time, invite aliens and variously screw things up with the consequent loss of many lives, several cities, the Earth and even the entire universe.

The physics deployed to make these things happen is, of course, based on only the flimsiest understanding (if, indeed, any at all) of particle physics and the mechanics of very large machines, but, Larsen argues, that is hardly the point. 

Accelerator tragedies, perhaps in common with natural disaster movies and novels, exist to portray humans more than physical forces. Using taxonomic scales created by literary theorists, the author neatly dissects the way in which scientists are portrayed in the accelerator genre (if we can call it that), finding that both male and female characters more often than not fit into standard, and very old, categories: mad scientists, noble scientists, hapless scientists, and so on. 

It is a mark of her skill as a writer that her breakdown of the ways in which gender affects the depiction of these scientists – rarely in a good way – feels both detailed yet brief enough to maintain focus on her central theme.

There is, as befits a physicist with an ultimately serious agenda, a whiff of disapproval to her tone when she references some of the books, movies and television episodes that misrepresent particle physics. However, such is the extraordinarily wide range of examples she cites, the suspicion that Professor Larsen secretly enjoys a bit of trash culture cannot entirely be dismissed. 

Her analysis encompasses – often multiple times and in depth – works as diverse as the TV series The Flash, American Dad, The Simpsons, Rick & Morty, books such as Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, movie classics such as Ghostbusters, heaps and heaps of B-films, straight-to-video flops, streaming service specials, and even “the nineteen-part web series The Apocalypse Diaries (2012)”.

To get through that much pop-culture, even allowing for a few diamonds among the dross, suggests prodigious effort.

In one sense, the fictional sins committed against factual physics perhaps don’t matter. Particle accelerators can be seen as analogues to Anton Chekhov’s gun: if there’s one shown in the first act, it must be fired in the third.

In another sense, however, Larsen argues, they matter very much. The scenarios and dodgy science used as plot points in pop-culture often represent the main, perhaps the only, references the general public has when it comes to reacting to real-world accelerators.

Some sections of the news media, too, are often all too ready to reach for a pop reference to jazz up a science story, compounding the problem. 

The result, all too often, is a swag of alarmist and out-there sentiments expressed in legacy and social platforms, and large parts of communities fearful that the next set of collider experiments designed to test the Standard Model will instead create an apocalypse.

Larsen is smart enough not to lay blame for this with screenwriters or novelists. Entertainment is just that: entertainment. It doesn’t have to be correct, just fun.

Instead, she leads her readers through the trials and pitfalls of science communications, exploring the ways in which scientists themselves, and the cohort of professional interpreters tasked with being the bridge between the research community and the public, often fall short of their goals.

Sometimes, she notes, this is unavoidable. Safety assessments carried out by physicists will always be greeted with scepticism by those who don’t trust physicists. On other occasions, though, things could be handled rather better: communicators should take into account that many people, not schooled in the recondite units of physics, can misunderstand quoted measurements by an order of magnitude.

And sometimes, too, scientists need to stop talking like scientists. Instead of trying to reassure a fearful public that the chances of anything going wrong are one in 10 million – and therefore focussing everyone in that single hyper-remote possibility – there is a case for simply saying something is safe.

All of this is good stuff – but it is extra-good because these discussions are always shot through with copious references to films, TV series, cartoons, books and comics, which are, in themselves, inherently fascinating. A pearler of a book.

Particle Panic! by Kristine Larsen, published by Springer, 2019.

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