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Large Hadron Collider: If you're reading this, the world hasn't ended...

By John Walsh

It may be "the greatest experiment in history" (according to Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal). It may revolutionise the way we understand the universe. But, for a few million Luddites, sceptics and wiseacres, the Large Hadron Collider is a £5bn liability.

Not only, they say, will mankind not benefit materially from the collision of particles in the reactor; mankind may not be around at all.

When Cern, who made the Collider, mentioned the remote possibility that the experiment might produce a black hole, there was uproar. Don't black holes, people asked, suck whole planets, indeed whole galaxies, into a murky, unimaginable oblivion?

It wasn't just dunderheads and Daily Mail readers who worried: a pair of scientists in Hawaii, Walter L Wagner and Luis Sancho, filed a suit at the Federal District Court in Honolulu demanding that the Collider experiment be postponed until an improved safety report was produced.

Safety levels at the Collider are monitored by the Safety Assessment Group. "The chance we produce a black hole is minuscule," said a British spokesman for Cern. "And even if we do, it can't swallow up the Earth." Which leaves us all pondering – what, just Geneva, then? Just Switzerland?

It's not, of course, the first time the end of the world has been predicted. Internet fans are convinced that 21 December 2012 will be the end; it's the final date of the Long Count Calendar of the Mayans. Jehovah's Witnesses cheerfully discuss the coming final conflagration while standing on the nation's doormats. The Millerite Sect, led by William Miller, predicted that the apocalypse would fall on 22 October 1844. When nothing happened, Miller shamelessly called it "The Great Disappointment".

We needn't, it seems, be too alarmed. Professor Stephen Hawking came on Radio Four's Today to reassure listeners that the world would not end. But he revealed he'd bet someone £100 about whether the "Higgs boson" particle would be discovered. Stephen Hawking bets on the outcome? One recalls that Robert Oppenheimer had a bet with other members of the Manhattan Project that the first A-bomb would kick off a chain reaction that would kill the Earth's atmosphere. The last thing you want to see in Geneva today is a scientist taking bets.

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