Sunday, April 13, 2008

Yay, L.A. Times

Two stories on the front page today that really baked my noodle.

The first was about the construction of the world's biggest and most powerful supercollider, which could potentially theoretically create a mini-blackhole some scientists fear could destroy the Earth, but more importantly lead to the discovery of the theoretical Higgs particle and answer a fundamental question about the origins of the universe.

I love this story because it's about something that literally could help explain one of the answers to the BIG QUESTIONS about the universe and existance. And the always amazing John Johnson of the Los Angeles Times wrote it. He does a great job of writing about science for the layperson, without offending the scientists (I would think).

And I love that the Los Angeles Times put this story on the front page. It's newsy, important, surprising, interesting, well-written, fun. Bravo!

New atom-smasher could fill gaps in scientific knowledge -- or open a black hole

Large Hadron Collider
Fabrice Coffrini / AFP/Getty Images
The collider will send particles crashing into each other at just a wink shy of the speed of light, generating energies more powerful than the sun.
Europe's enormous $8-billion particle accelerator, to be activated as early as this summer, is generating both excitement and fear.
By John Johnson Jr., Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 13, 2008
GENEVA -- Michelangelo L. Mangano, a respected particle physicist who helped discover the top quark in 1995, now spends most days trying to convince people that his new machine won't destroy the world.

"If it were just crackpots, we could wave them away," the physicist said in an interview at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, CERN. "But some are real physicists."


At the peak, the hydrogen protons in the new collider will reach 99.9999991% of the speed of light. Each packet of protons will complete 11,245 laps around the collider every second and carry as much power as a speeding train.

The collider will consume as much energy as all the households in Geneva, running up an annual electric bill of $30 million.


The huge burst of energy in particle collisions becomes a kind of time machine, transporting scientists back to the first microseconds after the Big Bang.

The universe was only about 200 million miles wide, consisting of a viscous cloud of quarks and gluons floating in a searing plasma. As the universe expanded and cooled, the quarks combined to make protons and neutrons. The gluons held them together to form the nuclei of atoms.


Harvey Newman, a Caltech physicist who was one of the discoverers of the gluon and is leader of the U.S. contingent on the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, said the collider could theoretically produce a mini-black hole by packing a tremendous amount of energy into a tiny space.

But he said the black hole would pose no threat because it would last only 10-27 seconds before decaying -- hardly enough time to start gobbling up the French countryside.

Critics are not convinced. Just last month, Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho filed suit in U.S. District Court in Honolulu to block the start-up of the new collider until CERN produces a comprehensive safety report.


It's just as possible that the tiny black hole would be stable and start chewing up normal matter, he said.

It could take years for it to become large enough to gobble up the Earth, but there's no evidence that can't happen, he said.


"Before each new accelerator started, there has been some panic," he said. Wagner, in fact, filed suit in 1999 to stop Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in New York. It went ahead and the world survived -- just as it will this time, according to scientists from Mangano to Newman and Stephen Hawking.

"Look," Mangano said, leaning forward in his chair at CERN's sprawling complex, "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," he said. "So all we can say is the probability of you blowing up the world when you shave tomorrow is less than one in 1015."


The other piece that had me thinking a lot was written by Anna Gorman, another Times all-star to me. It's about liver transplants and illegal immigrants. According to California law, the state will pay for transplants up until age 21 for illegal immigrants (and really anyone) and after that care is taken over by the counties. Most counties lack the funds (about $450,000 per transplant and then tens of thousands in follow-up care) to pay for transplants after that. But they provide meds and follow-up care.

However, if patients declare themselves as being in the country illegally they can get care, provided they show that they're not about to be deported. That's the gist.

With the state facing a nearly $5 billion budget deficit, how can we justify paying for medical expenses of people who are here illegally? Especially considering school budgets are getting slashed with parents being asked to donate to make up the difference, and transportation and other social services are getting cut, too.

But then again ...

Medical ethicists said doctors and hospitals have a duty to continue treatment for their transplant patients unless they can find them comparable care elsewhere.

"The worst ethical violation a physician can commit is abandonment," Arthur Caplan, chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, wrote in an e-mail. "Physicians and institutions do have a duty to these patients once they transplanted them. . . . Insurance running out is no excuse for abandoning them."

Caplan said UCLA doctors were under no obligation to perform liver transplants on the illegal immigrant children knowing that their insurance would run out at 21 and that their livers would probably need to be replaced.

Wesley Ford, director of children's medical services for Los Angeles County, said his office works with patients before their 21st birthdays to make sure they are covered. But that is more difficult for illegal immigrants.

"It's not that we want to deny care to these kids," he said. "It's required by state law that we discontinue care at age 21."

I am not sure where I stand on this one. I think if faced with a sick patient in front of me I wouldn't have the hard-heartedness to turn that person away. At least I fucking hope not. But at the same time, to pretend that there aren't economic consequences that will become human-life-affecting consequences is ignorant.

It points to an acute need to start fixing immigration and international economic policy yesterday. In the meantime, do no harm, right?

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