In the days leading up to Christmas, two science stories made the front pages of newspapers around the world. While both stories raised important moral and even theological issues, these issues were only raised with regard to one of the stories.
Not surprisingly, the media picked the wrong story.
The first story involved the search for the Higgs-Boson particle at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Media outlets couldn’t decide whether or not evidence of the particle had been found, but they did agree that the story had something to do with God.
Virtually every headline referred to the particle, whose existence is essential to the standard model of physics, by its nickname: the “God particle.”
Largely missing in the accounts was any mention of the origins of that nickname: Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman, frustrated by the failure to find the particle, called it the profane version of the “gosh-darn particle.” His publisher, wishing to avoid controversy, convinced Lederman to change the name to “God particle.”
If, as particle physicist Pauline Gagnon told Reuters, “the Higgs-Boson is not endowed with any religious meaning,” despite all the press hype. The same can’t be said about the other front-page science story.
That story was about the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asking the scientific journals Science and Nature to self-censor their articles about research into the H5N1, the “bird flu” virus.
Scientists in the Netherlands and the USA have succeeded in genetically-modifying the virus (which is normally not easily transmitted person-to-person) into a “highly transmissible form.”
The Advisory Board asked the journals to publish the findings, but not “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.” The fear, obviously, is that terrorists could use the published results in creating bio-weapons.
The publications Nature and Science are expected to comply with the request, which should reassure exactly nobody. Instead of being grateful that the exceptionally lethal H5N1 is difficult to pass from person to person, the researchers couldn’t resist playing god. They took a virus whose global impact was limited and turned it into the stuff of science fiction nightmares.
Literally. The recent movie “Contagion” is about a virus that, like H5N1, starts in south China and eventually kills people around the world. Even more on point, the science fiction classic “Twelve Monkeys” is about a genetically-modified virus that gets loose and kills most of the human race.
Now, I’m not saying that this, or anything like it, will happen with H5N1. I’m simply saying that it takes blind hubris to think that we can tinker with nature in this way — that is play God — without consequences. No amount of security can protect us from the consequences of our folly.
I’m all for studying the virus. But what happened here goes way beyond that. The fact that people don’t get that testifies to the way invoking “science” trumps moral concerns these days.
While the media was looking for “God” in the Swiss super-collider, it missed the fact that scientists may have found their own version of him elsewhere.