The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, c. 1835. © The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource.


Volume IX, Number 2 | spring 2016


The opening of a particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2000 inspired fears that high-speed collisions might launch a chain reaction that could turn the earth into a hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters across. A risk calculation determined this to be unlikely; if the collider were to run for ten years, the chance was no greater than 1 in 50 million. “The word unlikely, however many times it is repeated,” wrote concerned scientists, “just isn’t enough to assuage our fears of this total disaster.”

Calamities are of two kinds: misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others.

—Ambrose Bierce, 1906