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Large Hadron Collider Sparks 'Doomsday' Lawsuit 731

Posted by Zonk
from the this-looks-like-a-job-for-superman dept.
smooth wombat writes "In what can only be considered a bizarre court case, a former nuclear safety officer and others are suing the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermilab, the National Science Foundation and CERN to stop the use of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) until its safety is reassessed. The plaintiffs cite three possible 'doomsday' scenarios which might occur if the LHC becomes operational: the creation of microscopic black holes which would grow and swallow matter, the creation of strangelets which, if they touch other matter, would convert that matter into strangelets or the creation of magnetic monopoles which could start a chain reaction and convert atoms to other forms of matter. CERN will hold a public open house meeting on April 6 with word having been spread to some researchers to be prepared to answer questions on microscopic black holes and strangelets if asked."
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Large Hadron Collider Sparks 'Doomsday' Lawsuit

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  • idiots! (Score:5, Informative)

    by wizardforce (1005805) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @06:51PM (#22887578) Journal
    there's never any attempt at understanding the physics of any of this, it's just a nice way to scare people who don't know any better. never mind the fact that cosmic rays hit the atmosphere all the time with at least the amount of energy the LHC is going for- you'd think that over billions of years if there was ever a time for strangelets and blackholes to kill us all it would have happened by now.
  • Vade retro, lawyers! (Score:5, Informative)

    by martin-boundary (547041) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:03PM (#22887724)
    Trial judges and lawyers shouldn't be allowed to dabble in scientific questions. Leave the deciding of risks to real scientists.

    Last time a bunch of lawyers and politicians tried to legislate the value of pi [wikipedia.org], they got 3.2.

  • by LoRdTAW (99712) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:03PM (#22887728)
    I remember hearing the same kind of dooms day predictions about RHIC at Brookhaven national labs. Also it was said that some scientists predicted the first atomic bomb would ignite the atmosphere destroying the planet. At any rate none of those doomsday predictions occurred and RHIC has been operating since 2000.
  • Re:WTF? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:15PM (#22887850)
    ". . . or an electrician who can wire up a new 110 AC outlet in your house making claims about transistor-level details of the latest Intel CPU."

    Uh . . . yo. I'm actually pretty well versed in both of those worlds. That's a bad example. There's lots of us. Transistors aren't that complex and if you read the news you can keep up with the details of the newest variations kinda easily. But working in a job that used my EE background would suck compared to actually doing stuff.
  • by internic (453511) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:16PM (#22887862)

    While this is the first I've heard of lawsuits, the subject of a possible catastrophe due to a new particle accelerator is not a new idea. This has actually been a cycle that's happened a couple of times, IIRC, usually when someone mentions the possibility of black holes (or even AdS-CFT black hole analogues) being created in a new particle accelerator. Scientists have actually thought about this and published a number of papers on the topic. Here are two that came up easily via Google Scholar:

    The latter is freely available on the arXiv. From the conclusion:

    We have shown that the relatively late formation time of Earth implies that life on our planet is highly unlikely to be annihilated by an exogenous catastrophes during the next 109 years. In the case of the doomsday scenar- ios studied in the Brookhaven report [2], our bound also applies to hypothetical anthropogenic disasters caused by high-energy particle accelerators (risks 1-3). This holds because the occurrence of exogenous catastrophes, e.g., resulting from cosmic ray collisions, places an upper bound on the frequency of their anthropogenic counter- parts.

    In short, similar events occur naturally due to highly energetic cosmic rays, so, even if we assume we know almost nothing about the physics of the hypothetical catastrophic event, we can infer from teh fact we're still here that such a catastrophe is very unlikely. Based on this conclusion, and the fairly wide acceptance of that conclusion amongst experts, I think it's safe to say this lawsuit is without merit.

  • Re:idiots! (Score:4, Informative)

    by secPM_MS (1081961) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:21PM (#22887918)
    Cosmic rays have far far higher energies than any issue that will ever come out of a man-made accelerator. The intensities are far lower, but the energies are far higher.
  • Re:WTF? (Score:3, Informative)

    by evilviper (135110) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:31PM (#22888034) Journal

    Maybe they should schedual the first start for one of the predicted end dates ala the Mayans and Egyptans. The Hadron collider builders should also play "It's the End of the World as We Know It" by REM the day it starts.

    You forgot the final season of Lexx (4.x), which made this exact topic the main plot point.
  • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:43PM (#22888170)
    Let's look at the credentials of said "nuclear safety officer":

    """
    Walter Wagner graduated UC Berkeley with a Minor in Physics, and a Major in Biology. Later, he discovered a novel particle in a balloon-borne cosmic ray detector, initially identified as a magnetic monopole. Though its identity remains uncertain, it is definitely not within the standard repertoire of known particles. After a three-year break from science to attend law school, Dr. Wagner resumed work in Physics and Biology at the US Veterans Administration Medical Center in San Francisco, working in Nuclear Medicine and Health Physics. He then embarked on teaching Science and Mathematics, from grade school to college. Dr. Wagner developed a botanical garden in Hawaii, and continues involvement with several professional associations, including Health Physics Society and Society of Nuclear Medicine.
    """

    So, this is a guy who discovered a magnetic monopole (which would theoretically tear the universe apart, right?) and works at a VA med center? He only has a minor in physics? The "nuclear safety blah blah" in this case means nuclear medicine, as in the guy who makes sure no one mishandles the radioactive dye they use at every hospital in the US.

    Some expert.
  • by kebes (861706) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:45PM (#22888190) Journal

    How could a tiny black hole engender a positive feedback loop? I'm not even speaking of Hawking's radiation here; but how would a few g big blackhole do anything?
    You're right that a micro black hole would have a very weak gravitational field (a nanogram black hole has the same gravitational attraction as a nanogram of ordinary matter). However if the black hole didn't evaporate, it would slowly accumulate mass just from random collisions with nearby atoms. An object that is a singularity (infinite density at core) will have an event horizon. Even though the gravitational field is not strong around a micro black hole, there is still a (very, very small) region where the field gradient is so large that nothing can escape.

    For instance if a micro black hole was generated in the LHC but didn't evaporate, it would eventually drift into the sidewall of the collision chamber, and whatever matter it 'touched' (atoms pass beyond the event horizon) would not be able to escape and would add to the mass of the black hole. Slowly by slowly it would grow in size. Because matter is never lost out of the black hole, it would eventually accumulate a huge amount of matter. How exactly the scenario would play (in terms of rate of expansion, etc.) would be interesting to calculate (would it sink down into the earth? would it slowly consume the atmosphere?): but I think it would grow exponentially and ultimately consume the entire Earth.

    That's assuming that such a small black hole is actually a stable singularity with an event horizon, and that it cannot evaporate or dissipate in any way. Our best understanding of black holes right now indicates that if they form at all in the LHC (which is itself a dubious notion), they will be so small that they will evaporate very quickly due to Hawking radiation.

    The doomsayers worry that our theory of Hawking radiation is somehow wrong. But as others have pointed out, high-energy cosmic rays hit the earth all the time, and we haven't been converted into a black hole yet. So it's either very hard to form micro black holes, or they evaporate very quickly.
  • by internic (453511) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:46PM (#22888200)

    The studies I talked about in the parent make almost no assumption about what the catastrophe might be or how it would work. If you want to get into the physics of the specific things people are worried about, then there are even more reasons to think it's not a significant danger. There was a report about the possible disaster scenarios for RHIC [arxiv.org] that should mostly apply to the LHC, and here's a paper discussing the possibilities for the LHC [cdsweb.cern.ch]. Finally, it looks like Wikipedia has a pretty decent discussion [wikipedia.org] with references.

  • Re:Are they serious? (Score:5, Informative)

    by gardyloo (512791) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @07:53PM (#22888286)

    In all seriousness, I do not think they will end the world, but am I supposed to take your 'word' for it, or the word of whatever think tank even?
    Nope. Just study physics for the last decade or so as I have. I suggest Weinberg's Gravitation and Cosmology: Principles and Applications of the General Theory of Relativity (1972), although Misner's, Thorne's, and Wheeler's Gravitation (1973) is accessible enough.

     

    Last I heard, there was still great debate among top scientists as to the nature of existing black holes.
    You must not have heard too recently, then. Very few physicists (here I'm taking physicists as proxies for your "scientists") doubt General Relativity (its competing theories give much the same predictions) to any degree, and one of GR's beautiful predictions is that of the existence of black holes. We've witnessed gravitational lensing, time dilation effects, and many of the other predictions of GR; galactic jets and galactic dynamics point rather conclusively to the existence of black holes.

    Call me a bit skeptical, but I think I'll wait to see what happens instead of predicting.
    Good! You're following the precise credo of science, which is that experimental results trump all hypothesizing. However, don't carry empirical skepticism to the extreme of philosophical skepticism. Otherwise, you'll stop breathing for an hour to see whether, just because it's seemed necessary thus far, it might not be from now on. Besides, if the LHC doesn't produce black holes, or we can't detect them, or whatever, will in no way invalidate the possibility of their existence.
  • Re:Hawking Radiation (Score:2, Informative)

    by thesilverfox06 (999188) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @08:05PM (#22888394)
    Supposedly infinitely small (or on the scale of the Plank length, depending on who you ask), but that question is of no concern here. The physical size of a black hole is defined the size of its event horizon, which depends on its mass.
  • Re:Hold on... (Score:3, Informative)

    by The Master Control P (655590) <ejkeever AT nerdshack DOT com> on Thursday March 27, 2008 @08:36PM (#22888650)
    Yes. The upper limit of the LHC [wikipedia.org], using heavy ions like lead, is on the order of 10^15eV in a collision. Ultra-high-energy cosmic rays [wikipedia.org] can have energies of 10^20eV and higher, far beyond anything we will ever be able to create on Earth, and yet we're alive.

    When they build a particle accelerator out of the asteroid belt, call me and we can panic together :)
  • by arevos (659374) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @08:38PM (#22888672) Homepage

    For instance if a micro black hole was generated in the LHC but didn't evaporate, it would eventually drift into the sidewall of the collision chamber, and whatever matter it 'touched' (atoms pass beyond the event horizon) would not be able to escape and would add to the mass of the black hole. Slowly by slowly it would grow in size. Because matter is never lost out of the black hole, it would eventually accumulate a huge amount of matter. How exactly the scenario would play (in terms of rate of expansion, etc.) would be interesting to calculate (would it sink down into the earth? would it slowly consume the atmosphere?): but I think it would grow exponentially and ultimately consume the entire Earth.
    Even without Hawking radiation, micro black holes are entirely harmless, as they consume matter at too slow a rate to do any damage. Matter is mostly empty space, and gravity is an extremely weak force. Atoms are on the order of 10^-10m apart, whilst the event horizon of your postulated nanogram black hole would be 10^-25m, if I've done my sums right. That's a huge difference in scale, and a black hole so small isn't going to run into other particles with any significant frequency. The Earth would be long gone before a microscopic black hole made any impact.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 27, 2008 @08:48PM (#22888784)
    Such calculations *have* been done and it turns out the earth will be consumed by the sun long before you have to be worried about a black hole with mass on the order of two protons, as atoms are made almost entirely of empty space. It would certainly fall strait through the floor to the center of the earth (or, well, on an arc if it had a velocity to start with) and oscilate in an orbit around the gravitational center of the earth ignoring the concept of "surface." Once again, the earth would be inside the expanding red giant sun sol turned into before visible holes started appearing in ecliptics around the center of the earth.
  • by gobbo (567674) <wrewrite@gmai l . c om> on Thursday March 27, 2008 @09:19PM (#22889016) Journal

    I just finished reading Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman, great book, excellent sf. The central plot hinges on a similar idea:

    SPOILER AHEAD

    There's a giant accelerator being built around Jupiter, that will simulate the first .01 second of the universe... only the central characters figure out that it won't be just a simulation, but a new one, expanding and overwriting this part of this one.

    There are end-of-world religious nuts who find that out and strive to make sure it happens. Much mayhem and a touch of soldier cyberpunk. Fun stuff and excellent speculation, especially the other part about what it's liked to be jacked in with other people.

  • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Informative)

    by wass (72082) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @09:49PM (#22889238)
    It is not wrong to stop and ask these questions when the cost of failure is potentially a global concern.

    Certainly not, and I addressed that in my comment.

    It is certainly worthwhile running the calculations to verify such catastrophic events won't occur. Many physicists have already done this. But a non-expert suing the government without anything even remotely resembling evidence is pretty ridiculous.

    It's like some of the first rockets. Some skeptics were worried that a sufficiently-strong rocket combustion could ignite all of earth's atmosphere. Sure that's a worry and it was worth running the calculations by full-time expert chemists and physicists to justify whether such an event could occur.

    But any non-expert suing a project to cancel it based only on shaky claims? That's a different story.
  • Re:WTF? (Score:3, Informative)

    by therufus (677843) on Thursday March 27, 2008 @10:45PM (#22889584)
    At least we know Lenny Bruce is not afraid...
  • We're doomed already (Score:3, Informative)

    by isomeme (177414) <cdberry@gmail.com> on Thursday March 27, 2008 @11:48PM (#22889960) Homepage Journal
    Cosmic rays hitting the upper atmosphere routinely have higher energy than anything the LHC can achieve. So if high-energy particle collisions are going to produce strangelets and black holes, we've already been doomed for around four billion years.
  • Re:ICE-9 anyone? (Score:5, Informative)

    by DerekLyons (302214) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [retawriaf]> on Friday March 28, 2008 @12:59AM (#22890400) Homepage

    Well -they were afraid when they detonated the first above ground nuke as well -thought they might torch the atmosphere, but they did it anyway

    No, they didn't just do it 'anyway'. They sat a panel of physicists down and analyzed the situation and determined that it couldn't happen. I've seen a copy of their report floating around on the web, but cannot locate it at the moment.
  • Re:WTF? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Runagate Rampant (602123) on Friday March 28, 2008 @05:21AM (#22891494)
    the whole solar system would not collapse. Earth would become a 9mm diameter black hole, still orbited by the moon, ISS, and other existing satellites. according to here anyway: http://teamwak.blogspot.com/2008/01/how-to-destroy-earth-part-3.html [blogspot.com]
  • Re:Fermi Paradox. (Score:2, Informative)

    by doctor_nation (924358) on Friday March 28, 2008 @07:36AM (#22892088)
    I'm reading Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything at the moment, and early on he quotes a particular scientist who has run those odds in several different ways, but always comes back to there being life on a huge number of planets in the universe. Remember, the odds are certainly long, but we can't even come close to wrapping our minds around just how big this place is.

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