Daily Show Explains the LHC

By Sean Carroll | May 1, 2009 8:39 am

You can always count on the Daily Show. As John presaged earlier this month, correspondent John Oliver visited CERN to do a report on the LHC, which has finally appeared. Watch as John Ellis lays the science smackdown!

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The best thing about it is that, once again, Jon Stewart and company have taken an issue that completely flummoxed most major news media — in this case, the purported danger that the LHC will destroy the world — and actually get it right. In addition to visiting CERN itself, Oliver scored an interview with Walter Wagner (“graduated UC Berkeley with a Minor in Physics”), originator of much of the hysteria and lawsuits. You’ll get to hear Wagner explain that the probability the LHC will destroy the world is — wait for it — fifty percent. You know, because when you have two things that can possibly happen, obviously each has half the probability, right? I don’t want to say too much about Walter Wagner, because, if nothing else, the guy is really fond of a good lawsuit. So I have no comment whatsoever on Walter Wagner’s competence or sanity. But I do know people who are utterly incompetent and completely insane, who resemble Walter Wagner in certain ways. I’ll stop there.

See, major news media? It’s not that hard!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Science and the Media
  • http://mychemicaljourney.blogspot.com The Chemist

    Thanks, I really needed this.

  • serenity

    LOL! The ending is just brilliant. Not too mature, perhaps, but still.

  • student

    I’m quite impressed with how good of a job they did at making John Ellis seem like an asshole.

  • http://www.flamencoandarabicpop.com Adam Solomon

    Ha! The ending really was well-played. “Well, like you say, there’s a fifty percent chance it’ll work.”

  • asd

    the final remark was just brilliant

    perhaps i should try to mate with another male more often

  • NotJohnStewart

    The part I liked most about this piece is they managed to use the story critique the cable news media’s idiotic science reporting. It’s too bad that the exciting headlines (i.e. headlines which bring in advertising revenue) often turn TVs into stupid-rays.

  • macho

    I thought Ellis was great, but the 50/50 thing was just scary…is this guy really teaching science?

  • graviton383

    This was great! Finally SOMEONE in the media got it right…John Ellis did great too playing along with this.

  • Pieter Kok

    [Bayesian Joke]
    With the prior information that Walter Wagner has, 50/50 is probably a fair estimate.
    [/Bayesian Joke]

  • NotJohnStewart


    Oh snap!

  • Steve Peterson

    The sharpest part of this I think was them showing clips from all the mainstream news outlets reporting Wagner in the same way that John Oliver was — only without the satire.

  • Haelfix

    They didn’t have to rip on John Ellis by airing a segment where he gets defensive.

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  • Point Blank

    Would have been nice if Oliver sneaked in some real journalism while talking to John Ellis like “CERN states 5 physicists assigned to the LHC Safety Assessment Group, to include you, John, were never involved with the LHC experiment in the past. But you have been giving lectures on this experiment since 1987, and on reading your old blog you was very much involved with the LHC experiment. Why did CERN lie about your involvement with the experiment before being assigned to the LSAG?”

    I know, the kind of question only John Stewart would ask, but never will.


    John Ellis blog:

  • Point Blank

    John R. Ellis (CERN) Oct 1987

  • Jennifer West

    Please! John Ellis was not defensive! He was awesome!!! Like the best kind of no bullshit straight shooting scientists ever. I loved his childish drawings especially. Great piece, thanks for the link SMC!

  • Bruce

    “Evilgeniussaywhat?” …lol, I think he did get a bit ticked but so wha? It was funny.

    Hey, there’s a 50% chance I’m going to be the richest man in the world tomorrow so you’d better be nice to me.

  • Giotis

    Amazing! I wouldn’t expect less from the “Daily Show”. John Ellis was great. Wonderful sense of humour.

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  • Tony

    John Oliver: which…is….is…cold?
    John Ellis: f*cking cold.


  • Clerk

    John Oliver is one of the smartest comedians today!!! Next to Demetri Martin, and Patton Oswald. Bravo John!

  • Sili

    Good thing I’ll never get to visit CERN.

    I’dn’t be able to keep from humping and smooching John Ellis.

  • Science_Boy

    Well, I’m going to have to change my opinion. I’ll quit rolling my eyes at people who seem to get their real news information from the Daily Show. That was good. That was exactly what this issue needed.

  • student

    “I loved his childish drawings especially”

    He was drawing a feynman diagram for vector boson fusion. One of the primary higgs production interactions. Not really childish.

  • http://quantumnonsense.blogspot.com/ Qubit

    50-50 Chance of distroying the world? Don’t you mean 99.9% of distroying the world? That why the magnets are in the wrong place; schrodinger’s cat?

    High diddle diddle,
    The Cat and the Fiddle,
    The Cow jump’d over the Moon,
    The little dog laugh’d to see such Craft,
    And the Dish ran away with the Spoon.

    Well am still here! Am pretty sure I can see more imformation about what I wrote above , than the LHC will ever produce and I havent collapsed in to a black hole.

  • Jennifer West

    That was irony, student. A form of humor, you know. Anyway, I should have said childish scribbles. And Feynman would have laughed his head off at that joke.

  • maddox

    since no one knows what physics we will see at the LHC, how can one be sure of anything? There could be physics that we don’t understand that could create black holes and destroy Earth. Since we don’t know what this new physics is, the 50-50 odds could be reasonable. Just because know one yet has come up with a theory of black holes at the LHC, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Just sayin’

  • Jason Dick

    I have to say my favorite part of that was the dialog very near the beginning:

    Oliver: “Evilgeniussayswhat?”
    Ellis: “You’re getting incomprehensible.”

    I absolutely love the precise language that he uses there to completely circumvent the joke. One of these days, I hope to be well-practiced enough to use language that precisely.

  • http://www.sciforums.com/showthread.php?t=85716 rpenner

    There is nothing good about Wagner’s side of the lawsuit. For one, it was dismissed. In the appeal of the dismissal, Wagner advanced the theory that US Dollars are the only form of money that matters in the world. I mocked this with LOLcat speech and suggested in February that The Daily Show was the proper venue.

  • Rudolf Uebbing

    There are definetly four documents in the media, which shows, that CERN-representatives
    uses a perfect-Zero-Risk-language when refering to the LHC. There are other documents in the media, that shows, there exists scientists, who say, the risc is not Zero, although small. This is an important scientific contradiction, which may not stand before beginning the LHC-experiment over the limit of 2 TeV.

  • z

    If I were completely clueless about the physics community, one would get the impression from the daily show report that all physicists at the LHC were white males.

  • graviton383

    z Says: You wouldn’t get that impression after 15min walk through the halls at CERN…I guess the probability is 50%.

  • NotJohnStewart

    @ maddox: Um, no.

  • maddox

    @ NotJohnStewart: Um, yes. at the very least we don’t know what the probability is.

  • maddox

    @ NotJohnStewart: ps: If you asked scientists in the 1800s what is the probability for theories like quantum physics, special relativity, and general relativity to be true, they would unanimously
    said 0% ! And they would all have been dead wrong.

    Nobody knows how to calculate this probability since we don’t what new revolution lies ahead. May be we see quantum gravity at the TeV scale against common expectations and no one really understands this theory. Everyone is quoting probabilities out of their ass but the truth is that nobody really knows.

  • Chris W.

    A bit off-topic: Have you been noticing what sort of stuff Discover is publishing lately?

  • j

    @maddox: Um, no. It’s not that these collisions haven’t happened before – it’s that we haven’t been able to do it in an environment that’s controlled and directly observable. Far more energetic collisions happen in the atmosphere all the time, and though I haven’t looked at the sky in the last hour, no black holes. That’s why the probability is so low. Because it’s already been tested. If we were colliding at energies beyond what the earth has experienced or what we’ve observed in the range of our telescopes, then we might be able to say we don’t know the probability.

  • Ellipsis

    Did you know …. that Walter Wagner is the evil twin of Harvey Newman at Caltech?

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  • Michael Noonan

    The probability of 1 in 50 million of a destructive incident was calculated for RHIC in 1994. At those odds the estimate was half a chance of destruction by 2100. Since no time frame was given a half a chance of destruction is still 50/50. The LHC will create a quark/gluon plasma 25 to 30 times greater with the lead cycle. Presumably the 50/50 option will arrive a whole lot sooner.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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