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Asking a Judge to Save the World, and Maybe a Whole Lot More

Dennis Overbye, New York Times
More fighting in Iraq. Somalia in chaos. People in this country can’t afford their mortgages and in some places now they can’t even afford rice.

None of this nor the rest of the grimness on the front page today will matter a bit, though, if two men pursuing a lawsuit in federal court in Hawaii turn out to be right. They think a giant particle accelerator that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva this summer might produce a black hole or something else that will spell the end of the Earth – and maybe the universe.

Scientists say that is very unlikely – though they have done some checking just to make sure.

The world’s physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.”

… Although it sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.
(29 March 2008)

An act of “biopiracy” 130 years ago enriched England and devastated Brazil

Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire
By Joe Jackson
Viking. 414 pp. $27.95

On June 10, 1876, a self-styled explorer and adventurer named Henry Wickham arrived at Liverpool with his wife, Violet, having sailed from Brazil. He hastened to London and the offices of the Royal Botanic Gardens, commonly known as Kew Gardens, where he immediately presented the director, Joseph Dalton Hooker, with a sample of the precious cargo he had brought: 70,000 seeds of “the valuable rubber known as ‘Par¿ fine,’ ” its proper botanical name being Hevea brasiliensis, or simply hevea, as Joe Jackson refers to it in The Thief at the End of the World.

Wickham had committed, as Jackson writes in this excellent account of his life and its lasting consequences, an act of “biopiracy.” He had stolen seeds native to the Amazon forest and made them available to imperial Britain for planting in its Asian colonies. Jackson writes:

… “Thirty-four years after Henry’s theft, the British rubber grown in the Far East from Henry’s seeds would flood the world market, collapsing the Amazon economy in a single year and placing in the hands of a single power a major world resource”
(30 March 2008)
Slideshow at original. LA Times has another review.

Weaponizing the Pentagon’s Cyborg Insects

Nick Turse, TomDispatch
Biological weapons delivered by cyborg insects. It sounds like a nightmare scenario straight out of the wilder realms of science fiction, but it could be a reality, if a current Pentagon project comes to fruition.

Right now, researchers are already growing insects with electronics inside them. They’re creating cyborg moths and flying beetles that can be remotely controlled. One day, the U.S. military may field squadrons of winged insect/machine hybrids with on-board audio, video or chemical sensors. These cyborg insects could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on distant battlefields, in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer to home, and transmit detailed data back to their handlers at U.S. military bases.

Today, many people fear U.S. government surveillance of email and cell phone communications. With this program, the Pentagon aims to exponentially increase the paranoia. Imagine a world in which any insect fluttering past your window may be a remote-controlled spy, packed with surveillance equipment. Even more frightening is the prospect that such creatures could be weaponized, and the possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the project, that these cyborg insects might be armed with “bio weapons.”

… “The people who build this equipment are always going to say that they’re just building tools, that there are legitimate uses for them, and that it isn’t their fault if the tools are abused,” says the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Eckersley. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen that governments are more than willing to play fast-and-loose with the legal bounds on surveillance. Unless and until that changes, we’d urge researchers to find other projects to work on.”

Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Adbusters, the Nation, the Village Voice, and regularly for Tomdispatch. His first book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, has just been published in Metropolitan Books’ American Empire Project series. His website is
(30 March 2008)
News items to whet your paranoia are usually the province of Big Gav (file under “tin-hat conspiracies”). The demise of projects such as these will be one welcome side-effect of peak oil. -BA