Is Fundamental Knowledge of Nature Risky?

I am concerned that perturbing nature in certain ways that are currently unknown could be highly destructive. It is important to avoid unwittingly or deliberately causing a catastrophe when manipulating nature at high energies.

At one level this concern extends to laboratories with resources that are pushing the frontiers of concentrated energy-matter. At another level this concern is in regards to those who will deliberately attempt to leverage nature to cause destruction.

I sent this letter to LLNL / NIF on October 24, 2019. I have sent previous letters to LLNL / NIF yet received no response to date.

I sent this letter to the Secretary of Energy on October 24, 2019. I have sent previous letters to DOE yet received no response to date.

I asked the following question on reddit in February 2020:

Are there areas of academic Particle Physics research that are classified?

If you can say, using the Wikipedia definition of classified, what areas of particle physics research are classified? What information can you provide about what is classified in academia and what is not? Are academic researchers required to do some sort of classification review for new discoveries? What about the same set of questions for government research?

I am very interested in the legal consequences and moral/ethical views on what knowledge can be shared. Is it generally true that there is a race condition between those who would apply new technology in positive ways to survival of intelligent life versus those who would use such new technology destructively?

The responses were interesting. I’ll summarize them. The bottom line is that the reddit r/ParticlePhysics respondents were not concerned about risks from particle physics research as it is done in 2020. This doesn’t assuage my concerns that NPQG might open the door to new technologies that could be far easier for an evil scientist or nefarious group to exploit.

  • Classified
    • There is basically no “classified” material in true particle physics i.e. no new discoveries would ever be classified because the work is so abstract, you can’t go from E=mc2 to nuclear weapon without decades of research and billions of dollars.
    • Not sure about research, but the government absolutely commissions classified white papers on topics related to particle physics.
  • Non-proliferation
    • There is work on non-proliferation that has heightened scrutiny, I don’t know if is classified.
    • Any sort of nuclear non-proliferation stuff starts to become very secretive very fast.
    • A country might specifically create a detector looking for nuclear facilities in other countries. That is a political act, funded by a government, and the results are probably kept by that government for their own use. So if a physicist has a moral problem with that experiment they simply wouldn’t join.
    • The Japan-based neutrino experiment has produced analysis related to proliferation events. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of it ended up classified.
    • Non-proliferation considerations arise in nuclear physics, not particle physics, per se. In some experiments, this is a blurred line, e.g. Watchman. So it is kind of nuclear physics and particle physics at the same time.
  • Export control
    • The US is very secretive with their research, and tend not to share anything they deem ‘too’ important or irrelevant.
  • Embargoed information (not classified)
    • There are numerous collaborations which will have a lot of internal reviews and discussions before anything becomes public knowledge, usually through a press announcement.
  • Risk
    • Particle physicists don’t deal with anything that powerful or immediately destructive.
    • The accelerators are safe, the software is benign, and the theories are pretty useless, and too specific, to be used for weapons research.
    • So we live in a nice area where we don’t have to worry about the morality of releasing knowledge. It won’t affect anyone. There isn’t a big cabinet of censored results.
  • Openness
    • There is certainly no prescreening for research within the particle physics community.
    • In fact in many places research is required by law to be open sourced.
    • CERN and most other large experiments are funded by taxpayers in multiple countries. To respect that (and sometimes by law), the experiments are pretty committed to open data, open source technology, and open science so that results are always available in journals that provide/allow a free to view version to be hosted.
  • Academic vs. government research
    • The distinction between academic research and government research is basically nothing by the way.
    • I know of a couple of projects with….. dual purposes….

J Mark Morris : San Diego : California : October 24, 2019 : v1
J Mark Morris : San Diego : California : February 15, 2020 : v2