On rare occasions, the disparate worlds of “the law” and “particle physics” collide (pun intended). Now is such a one.
This summer, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) will begin experiments with its Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an incredibly complex circular tube 27 kilometers long through which atoms and bits of atoms will be accelerated (in opposite directions) to a reported 99.9999991% light speed under the French/Swiss countryside. Upon attaining such speed, the particles will be smashed together head-on, and the resulting debris will be documented by sensors.
Wikipedia lists the following as some of the questions to be investigated (just breeze through):
- Is the popular Higgs mechanism for generating elementary particle masses in the Standard Model realised in nature? If so, how many Higgs bosons are there, and what are their masses?
- Will the more precise measurements of the masses of the quarks continue to be mutually consistent within the Standard Model?
- Do particles have supersymmetric (“SUSY”) partners?
- Why are there apparent violations of the symmetry between matter and antimatter? See also CP-violation.
- Are there extra dimensions indicated by theoretical gravitons, as predicted by various models inspired by string theory, and can we “see” them?
- What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy?
- Why is gravity so many orders of magnitude weaker than the other three fundamental forces?
To which I, a devout man of science, reply: “Have we solved world hunger yet?” There, it’s been said — whether tongue-in-cheek… I, even I, can’t immediately decide. That dilemma however, is far from the point. Back to the collision of disparate worlds, and forward to the explosion of them.
Turns out, there are safety concerns:
Michelangelo L. Mangano, a respected particle physicist who helped discover the top quark in 1995, now spends most days trying to convince people that his new machine won’t destroy the world.
“If it were just crackpots, we could wave them away,” … “But some are real physicists.”
Mangano and his colleagues are pretty sure the device is safe. Among other comforting nuggets, they say that cosmic rays have been impacting at LHC-type speeds in the vicinity of Earth’s moon for eons, and the moon is still there.
Luis Sancho, a noted physicist and author, isn’t so sure. So concerned are Sancho and fellow physicist Walter Wagner, that they’ve — no joking — filed suit in the US District Court for Hawaii to block the start-up of the LHC until a detailed safety review has been completed and peer-reviewed. The two are irritated that a 1999 review for a less powerful collider in the United States is the only safety review posted by CERN for LHC, when a fresh review had been promised by Jan 1, 2008.
Sancho fears that either a microscopic black hole, or an ultra-dense “strangelet,” (both of which are expected to be produced in the LHC by its proponents) could destroy Earth. LHC proponents claim that any black hole produced would instantly dissipate due to (theoretical) “Hawking radiation” and any strangelet produced would be both unstable and wrongly charged to pose a threat, also dissipating in a virtual instant. Sancho notes that Einstein’s theories contradict the notion of Hawking radiation, and Einstein has mainly been proven right, eventually.
James Gillies, a CERN spokesman, told New Scientist magazine that fears were overrated:
The lawsuit’s claims are “complete nonsense.” “The LHC will start up this year, and it will produce all sorts of exciting new physics and knowledge about the universe,” he said, adding: “A year from now, the world will still be here.”
The world will still be here, unless they’re wrong, as Sancho notes in his affidavit:
As Nobelist Frank Wilczek, the author of a ‘safety document’ for the far less powerful RHIC collider, said at a conference at MIT:
“It was easy to make the report because if something goes wrong then … (‘shrugging his shoulders and laughing’)” …
Obviously meaning that neither he, nor CERN could be blamed, since the planet and all courts and citizens that might retrospectively judge their foolishness would be gone.
Here are some choice tidbits from Sancho’s affidavit, filed in support of his motion for a Temporary Restraining Order.
As of today, the exact probability of a possible runaway reaction that converts the Earth into strange matter, or converts the Earth into a black hole, is unknown, and is entirely dependent on alternative theories, which are still disputed. Those theories convert those experiments in probabilistic events similar to the toss of a coin: If theory A is right or Parameter C has certain unknown value we will become annihilated. If instead, theory B is right or Parameter C has a different unknown value, we will survive without any adverse consequence. …
CERN chooses selectively only those theories about black holes and dark matter that favor the position of ‘no risk’. It is for that reason that it promotes and affirms as an ‘absolute truth’ the outdated 1974 thesis of black hole ‘evaporation’ postulated by Dr. Hawking, explained in the previous paragraphs. Indeed, CERN bases all its hopes of human survival in its report of safety on 6 words: “Black holes will evaporate via thermal radiation”; 6 words that seem enough for CERN to calm mankind. Yet Thermal Radiation, the so-called “Hawking radiation”, is quite disputed, since there is not a single proof whatsoever that has shown that black holes will evaporate once created. …
Thus, we come to the conclusion that CERN will cause 2 events [creation of a stable black hole or a stable strangelet] that can destroy the planet, each with approximately a ±50% chance of occurring, as there are equally respectable, alternative theories and parameters in both cases for which no certain estimates can be made. On that basis, a simple calculation of probabilities shows that the real risk of these proposed experiments can be as high as 75% when we combine 2 possible events, each one with a 50% chance. …
In ethical, moral and hence legal terms (as I believe The Law is the practical expression of human ethics), it is self-evident that even a reduced possibility, as those initially considered by CERN, of a 1-10% chances of extinguishing the Earth, would create a “theoretical potential” 6 billion x 1-10% = 60-600 million potential legal holocaust victims, still the biggest genocide in the history of mankind. It would be also the biggest environmental crime of history, far more harmful than Global Warming, as it could mean the destruction of all life forms on this planet.
Ever heard the canard that our lack of evidence of other advanced civilizations in the galaxy could be due to their consistently obliterating themselves once their particle physics experiments reach a certain level? Makes you wonder.
What would it be like, to be sitting at your desk as the world is converted into strange matter or crushed in an expanding black hole in a matter of hours or minutes?
I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened. — Obi-Wan Kenobi, sensing the destruction of Alderaan
Supposedly (at bottom), there is an initial hearing scheduled before a magistrate judge in Hawaii on June 16. I will try to discover what info is available thereafter. Though I sympathize with their contrarianism, I figure Sancho and Wagner are probably wrong, and the Earth is safe. But it will be interesting to see how the court handles such heavy science. Let’s hope these guys don’t have to update their website. Like the old Chinese proveb says, you can bask in the glow of being right, or you can just bask in the glow.