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Physics conspiracy: LHC could kill us all

LHC.jpgOf all the physics conspiracy theories out there, my current favorite concerns the Large Hadron Colldier (LHC), a proton-proton collider near Geneva, Switzerland that will hopefully discover some exciting new physics. Conspiracy nuts have suggested that it might also inadvertently destroy the Earth (or maybe even the entire Universe).

I’ll spare you the details, which can be easily dug up with a little Googling, but basically the cranks think that the collider will also cook up either an exotic particle or a tiny black hole that will suck up everything around it. It’s pretty much bunk, as others smarter than I have said (here for example).

But that hasn’t stopped Walter L. Wagner, a botanist and self-proclaimed nuclear physicist, from filing suit in US District Court in Hawaii to stop the LHC before it destroys all we hold dear. Wagner wants a “full-scale safety analysis” to be conducted of the collider before its start up, hopefully later this year. A few years back, Wagner raised the same concern about the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. But all it ended up doing was producing these pretty pictures (and some valuable science too).

Incidentally, Wagner’s in a little legal trouble of his own. According to the Honolulu Advertiser, he and his wife were just indicted for allegedly taking illicit control of some property owned by the World Botanical Gardens, which he helped found.

I’m guessing not even the LHC can make his problems disappear.

Credit: CERN

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    LW said:

    Geoff, you wrote:

    “Of all the physics conspiracy theories out there, my current favorite concerns the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a proton-proton collider near Geneva, Switzerland that will hopefully discover some exciting new physics. Conspiracy nuts have suggested that it might also inadvertently destroy the Earth (or maybe even the entire Universe)…. “

    You then refer to

    “… Walter L. Wagner… filing suit in US District Court in Hawaii to stop the LHC…”

    Concerning your reference to “nuts”, that is not the only way to look at it. In a front page article in today’s New York Times, Dennis Overbye writes about the suit:

    “Although it sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.”

    You also wrote: “It’s pretty much bunk, as others smarter than I have said”

    Unfortunately most of those saying that are protagonists for collider experiments. By definition, they have a conflict of interest. There are a range of stakeholders in this question, not just physicists, not just those involved with the collider, and not just those involved with science. The general public are stakeholders and have an interest. If there were suspicions that a dangerous car had been built, it would be considered normal and proper that the public would have an interest. It wouldn’t be asserted that only the manufacturer of the car could have standing to judge the merits or risks of the situation.

    Also on your “nuts” point: Questions about the risk have been considered by eminent people well and truly in the scientific mainstream – and continuing with the point that it is not only scientists who are stakeholders – in the non-scientific mainstream as well.

    That potentially deadly particles might be produced by collider experiments has been proposed from theory by physicists, and entertained as potentially credible by eminent physicists (one of whom, Dr. Frank Wilczek, went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics). The risks from the particles have seriously been flagged and considered, including by two physicists who are highly eminent – the astronomer, Martin Rees, present President of the Royal Society, and the physicist Francesco Calogero (who is also active in the Pugwash Conferences, and who was its Director General when the Pugwash Organisation received the Nobel Prize).

    The view that the potential that collider experiments could create catastrophe lacks an ethical governance institution was also previously put forward for the US collider, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) by the prominent US jurist, the honorable Richard Posner. In his authoritative book Catastrophe: Risk and Response published by Oxford University Press in 2004, he observed the lack of such process, and called for such by government regulation. This view was uncompromisingly supported by Kenneth Foster in his review of Posner’s book in no less than Science journal in 2005. Foster encapsulated the process issues and the underlying contributing mindset of some scientists in this section of the review, quoted as follows:

    “Posner will infuriate many scientists whom, he writes, have an “attitude gap created by the different goals, and resulting different mindsets, of science on the one hand and public policy on the other. The scientist qua scientist wants to increase scientific knowledge, not make the world safer — especially from science. …

    “The strangelet scenario is a case in point. Shortly before a new high-energy accelerator [RHIC] was to begin operation at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a physicist raised concerns that a high-energy collision might trigger a runaway reaction that would quickly transform Earth into a 100-meter lump of inert matter. The lab director took the ethically dubious step of appointing an evaluation panel of physicists, all of whom had professional interests in seeing the experiments go forward. Posner dismisses as non sequiturs the various public statements by physicists intended to reassure the public of the improbability of the strangelet scenario. Seeing few economic benefits and a likely small but in fact unknown probability of disaster, he argues that high-energy research should be supported by universities rather than the government and that it should be brought under a strict regulatory umbrella."

    This is precisely the point Dennis Overbye reports on when he writes, as I have mentioned:

    “… a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.”

    A case can be made that the present LHC risk assessment situation concerning catastrophic risks is essentially identical to that pertaining to the RHIC. There is a study of the current catastrophic risk questions concerning the LHC going on. But the study is run by CERN, the management of the collider. A proper study should be run by an independent arms-length regulator and involve not only physicists, but also safety experts and ethicists.

  2. Report this comment

    JTankers said:

    CERN’s web site states that we have not been destroyed by effects of cosmic rays and micro black holes will evaporate.

    However, cosmic rays travel too fast to be captured by Earths gravity, and Hawking Radiation is disputed (http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0304042) and contradicts Einstein’s highly successful relativity theory.

    Collider particles smash head on like a car collision and can be captured by Earth’s gravity, and relativity predicts micro black holes will not decay (Hawking called Einstein doubly wrong, yet it is Einstein who is repeatedly found to have been correct in his theories). There is currently no reasonable proof of LHC safety, LSAG (LHC Safety Assessment Group) has been trying for months to prove safety without success. I hold the minority opinion that it may not be possible because it may in fact not be safe.

    If micro black holes are created, we may soon be trying to calculate the growth rate, and in my personal speculation, it might not be too implausible to believe that calculation could need to account for the same quantum effects that Hawking predicts but as an accelerator not as a decay factor.

    NewScientist March 22-28 “Stakes get higher in antimatter puzzle”: “We can say with greater than 99.7 per cent probability that CP violation is there” says Sivestrini [of Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics INFN] (link corrected from article: http://arxiv.org/abs/0803.0659)

    Cosmic Rays from the legal complaint.

    …any such novel particle created in nature by cosmic ray impacts would be left with a velocity at nearly the speed of light, relative to earth. At such speeds, …, is believed by most theorists to simply pass harmlessly through our planet with nary an impact, safely exiting on the other side. … Conversely, any such novel particle that might be created at the LHC would be at slow speed relative to earth, a goodly percentage would then be captured by earth’s gravity, and could possibly grow larger [accrete matter] with disastrous consequences of the earth turning into a large black hole.

    Sincerely, JTankers LHCConcerns.com

  3. Report this comment

    Uncle Al said:

    1) CERN pledges a €1 trillion bond against black hole/strangelet damages to be funded by European Union taxes. In the spirit (and magnitude) of US Social Security Fund and NINJA mortgage financing, said monies will be basis for 10X value derivativised securities whose sales abundantly finance interim CERN operations. Handsome user fees are skimmed then awarded to the middlemen.

    2) Given conservation of angular momentum, nothing macroscopic swirls into a picometer drain hole in real time.

  4. Report this comment

    Michael said:

    You’re completely correct in dismissing the lawsuit – the individual in question seems to be barking for attention to the tune of the same catastrophe prediction twice.

    Physicists will tell you certain things are in fact dangerous, and that others are not. In this case the consensus seems to be that the chance of risk is in the neighborhood of 0 – for a variety of reasons.

    One of the most obvious things people need to recognize is that this is all theory. Including – black holes themselves, micro black holes, hawking radiation. None have ever been directly observed, even though we’ve seen empty areas where its clear a mass is pulling stars. There is even a theory out there that the electron itself is a micro black hole – go figure.

  5. Report this comment

    Mark said:

    CERN pledges a €1 trillion bond against black hole/strangelet damages to be funded by European Union taxes”. hahaha. What sort of damage from a black hole could be covered by insurance? Seems a bit silly really. How about this instead… The directors and employees of CERN agree to be the first line of matter in the unlikely event that they create a black hole… hah.

  6. Report this comment

    Frank Lipsky said:

    This writer has a degree in Physics and definitely is not a candidate for a Nobel prize However the hubris in certain researchers plus stakeholding in certain projects is bothersome! Why that is follows:

    Witten and all the algebras

    of the quantum world cannot tell us what is the fundamental nature of the mass charge and spin of the elctron. Dirac had to induce /deduce matrices .He did not derive the spinor nature from more fundamental physical principles but Platonic mathematics.

    Scientists say most of the universe is filled with dark matter and dark energy

    whose essences are unknown

    Summary ;we don’t know the fundamental nature of the particles that determine our chemistry biology(valence electrons)and dark matter energy is a mystery.

    The scientific foxes are guarding the chicken coop!Is this good public or safe public policy/

    An aside I can’t resist:

    The dynamical laws of physics are universal per GR so why spend billions to go to places where we already know the laws !More Hubbles yes -manned space no!!! Shift the focus and spending to earth bound sciences

  7. Report this comment

    Richard said:

    Michael writes “..this is all theory. Including – black holes themselves..”

    Black Holes are more than a theory and are as real as stars. As are electrons real. Just because we haven’t been able to figure out everything about electrons doesn’t mean they do not exist.

    “…this is all theory… go figure” Is that supposed to be an argument? E=mc^2 was a theory till the first mushroom cloud confirmed it.

    I also think that there doesn’t seem to be much of a risk after reading a bit of both sides of the argument.

    JTankers implies that Dr. Frank Wilczek thinks there is a danger from the collider experiments, whereas I could find no such opinion from him.

    I think that CERN needs to explain to the public in clear understandable terms why there is no danger from a runaway micro black hole, that would accrete matter rather than decay harmlessly as they have claimed. Saying something like ΓD ≈ T^4 BH R^2S is not good enough.

    Also they need to, in clear understandable terms, refute Walter L. Wagner’s arguments.

    Wagner is probably talking nonsense and his claims maybe scientifically unsound, but they are more understandable to me than CERN’s equations.

    If I have got the gist of CERN’s arguments re: black holes they say

    1. Micro Black holes are most unlikely to be formed because the concentration of energy is not large enough.

    2. If formed they are likely to spontaneously decay.

    3. Cosmic-ray processes reach the energies and energy densities that will be encountered at the LHC. collide often with the surface of astrophysical objects such as the moon. The total number of such collisions on the moon is

    huge compared to what is expected at the LHC and, since the moon is still there and made out of ordinary matter, the LHC should be safe too.

    Instead of launching into things like “Proof that bulk strange quark matter (regardless of charge) cannot be stable at zero pressure.” which is meaningless to the average person, if they said something like – “similar and far greater intensity collisions occur in our sun which has been around for a few billion years thus we needn’t worry about the comparatively piffling collisions in our collider” that would be far more helpful.

  8. Report this comment

    hiro said:

    How does that mini-black hole destroy the entire universe? I must be too dumb to understand or some people must be coming from Pluto and beyond.

  9. Report this comment

    JTankers said:

    Alleged in the legal action: Chief Scientific Officer, Mr. Engelen passed an internal memorandum to workers at CERN, asking them, regardless of personal opinion, to affirm in all interviews that there were no risks involved in the experiments, changing the previous assertion of ‘minimal risk’.

    (Statisticians generally consider minimal risk as 1-10%).

  10. Report this comment

    Richard said:

    hiro has given us two choices “I must be too dumb to understand or some people must be coming from Pluto and beyond”. Now that’s simple. No people come from Pluto and beyond – thus we will have to accept that hiro is “too dumb”.

    Geoff you have said – “Of all the physics conspiracy theories out there, my current favorite concerns the Large Hadron Colldier … Conspiracy nuts have suggested that it might also inadvertently destroy the Earth (or maybe even the entire Universe).”

    A conspiracy is an evil plot by a group of people to do something harmful. Suggesting that something might happen inadvertently, on the other hand, implies unintended consequences as a result of an accident or miscalculation and is quite different from a conspiracy.

    Then again the “nuts” who suggested that it might inadvertently destroy the Earth have not suggested that it might also inadvertently destroy the Universe. Your implication that they have is a misrepresentation and perhaps deserves an apology.

    Personally I would not get a very great deal of satisfaction if I, along with the Earth, were destroyed but the Universe remained safe.

    Attacking Walter L. Wagner for what he has said on the basis of his being a botanist, (does he also have a degree in Nuclear Physics? – that he may not get the Nobel Prize, again is of no consequence to the argument), or his legal troubles, smacks of Ad homonyms – making personal attacks on a person to try and discredit his argument.

    CERN scientists have admitted that the production of a black hole is possible in their facility and posted this admission on their site. And according to one eminent scientist, Sir Martin Rees, the chances of a doomsday scenario at the LHC is one in 500 million. That is small, but, then again, people judging probabilities have often got it wrong because many of their assumptions were invalid.

    Wagners main argument is that micro-black holes would be produced at low speeds and be captured by the Earth’s gravity to start accreting matter and eventually (in 4 and a half minutes once the process started) crush the Earth into a infinitesimally small point, known as a black hole. This would not only leave the Universe intact, but even our solar system and our moon – what joy!

    I would not be unhappy if the safety issues were re-examined by an independent body whose members are not “.. anxious to spend their time and their grant money using the LHC rather than chasing down cosmic improbabilities.”

  11. Report this comment

    tobe said:

    Why do we need this very expensive machine? How many people on earth could be saved from starving with that money?

    I do not want to have a black hole here on earth, not even for a trillion second. At the risk of 1-10% it is not tolerable.

    The size of the earth swallowed of a black hole has a diameter of 1,8 cm. The current size is much more comfortable. And Einstein wasn’t that bad in his forecasts (i.e. energy release in the case of nuclear fission, the “Rotverschiebung”, etc.).If there are people who don’t believe that black holes do even exist, because they never see one, have no idea of astronomy. If someone is missing black holes on earth just take a look on the current US administration – such an accumulation you wouldn’t even find in the centers of non-spiral galaxies.

  12. Report this comment

    Richard said:

    tobe : “Why do we need this very expensive machine?” Because through this we can explore questions like what is our Universe made of? How did it come into being? Is there a fundamental law which explains gravity, and all the other fundamental forces of nature? Is there another dimension close to ours?

    The answer to these questions could also, very possibly, reveal new sources of energy which could solve our energy needs (and destroy us – depending on how we use this energy).

    Some new and totally unexpected discovery is very possible.

    Nuclear energy powers atomic bombs but it also produces 16% of the worlds electricity production, and could produce a good bit more.

    “How many people on earth could be saved from starving with that money?” (You didn’t ask for how long?) – Not nearly as many as those who could be saved if we confiscated the money from all those who ask these kind of inane questions and exported the lot to sub-Saharan Africa. How many starving can be saved if we divert all money spent on education? The Bolshoi Ballet? All movies, theatre and entertainment? The list is endless. Before such people try and prod our collective guilt, they should give their money away to the homeless and bums in their own neighbourhood. To such people I say – put up or shut up – preferably both.

    “At the risk of 1-10% it is not tolerable” – The risk is not 1-10%. That is what JTankers says is what Statisticians consider is minimal risk. I suspect that the risk is very little, even vanishingly small, judging from what I have read. But we don’t know really what the risk is and perhaps it should be examined in more detail.

    We don’t want a situation of – “Oops we have shrunk (crushed and destroyed) the Earth”. If such a situation were to happen then it would be observed by those on the International Space station, who would be the last humans to survive, till the resources in their little cocoon ran out. If there was a rocket or space shuttle currently docked there, there would be no Earth to land back on. If I were in their shoes, I’d blast off on an exploration of the solar system, while I wrote my diary like Captain Scott.

  13. Report this comment

    JTankers said:

    Credibility of Hawking Radiation is strongly disputed:

    2008 … this prediction is not without its problems… no very good responses to these concerns… completely alters the picture drawn by Hawking… http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/gr-qc/pdf/0503/0503052v1.pdf

    2004 … 9.9% doubt by 15 physicists polled: http://www.lhcconcerns.com/#James_Blodgett

    2004 … it may be a long time before we have sufficient knowledge of quantum gravity to be able to calculate the correct answers for the logarithmic terms in the entropy. http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-th/pdf/0409/0409024v3.pdf

    2003 … Yet this prediction rests on two dubious assumptions… no compelling theoretical case for or against radiation by black holes: http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0304042

  14. Report this comment

    C Denise said:

    More probable, than black hole and/or strangelet production –

    The selling of anti-matter for anti-matter bomb developement (positron bombs). More powerful than nukes, and “clean” too – so no reason not to blow the whole planet up with them. Scary indeed….

    http://cui.unige.ch/isi/sscr/phys/antim-BPP.html

  15. Report this comment

    Walt said:

    Playing God! – ‘The World is not Enough’

    Nobel Prize hungry Physicists are racing each other and stopping at nothing to try to find the supposed ‘Higgs Boson’(aka ‘God’) Particle, among others, and are risking nothing less than the annihilation of the Earth and all Life in endless experiments to try to solve theoretical problems when urgent real problems face the planet. The European Organization for Nuclear Research(CERN) new Large Hadron Collider(LHC) is the world’s most powerful atom smasher that will soon be firing subatomic particles at each other at nearly the speed of light to create Miniature Big Bangs producing clouds of Micro Black Holes, Strangelets and other potentially cataclysmic phenomena.

    The CERNLHC website Mainpage itself states quote: “There are many theories as to what will result from these collisions,…” This stunning admission is because they truly don’t know what’s going to happen. They are experimenting with forces they don’t understand to obtain results they can’t comprehend. If you think like most people do that ‘They must know what they’re doing.’ you could not be more wrong. The second part of the quote reads “…but what’s for sure is that a brave new world of physics will emerge from the new accelerator,…” A molecularly changed or Black Hole consumed Lifeless World? The end of the quote reads “as knowledge in particle physics goes on to describe the workings of the Universe.” These experiments to date have so far produced infinitely more questions than answers but there isn’t a particle experimentalist physicist alive who wouldn’t gladly trade his life to glimpse the “God particle”, and sacrifice the rest of us with him.

    This quote from Nation Geographic exactly sums this “science” up: “That’s the essence of experimental particle physics: You smash stuff together and see what other stuff comes out.”

    For more information visit;

    http://www.risk-evaluation-forum.org/anon1.htm

    http://www.lhcdefense.org/

    http://www.lhcconcerns.com

    http://www.SaneScience.org/

    http://www.LHCFacts.org

    Popular Mechanics – “World’s Biggest Science Project Aims to Unlock ‘God Particle’” – http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/extreme_machines/4216588.html"

  16. Report this comment

    Ishan said:

    As a science student I feel this experiment is safe enough to carry on. Think about it, would so many countries fund this if there was a danger of THEMSELVES dying or being in any danger(and if the earth and/or universe is indeed sucked into a dark hole, they wont be safe, so its not the Iraq war)? There is a limited danger in everything, I could get an electric shock while typing this, there could be a tornado right now sweeping through your city as you read this, you might die crossing the bloody road ffs. Doesnt mean you sit in your house cooped up scared sh*tless does it? My suggestion, if you are so scared and believe in god, pray nothing happens. Come to think of it, this could be a great test to see if god actually helps us in distress or not. If he does, good, you are safe and we have solved one of life’s greatest questions. If not, well it was god’s will that you die, and you aint gonna fight with god are you? For fellow atheists and agnostics, you will probably be smart enough to figure how the empty argument the doomsday predictors are making; if not, use your brains.

  17. Report this comment

    nathan lee (17) said:

    well all i can say is im not as smart and as intelligent as you guys with all your fancy qualifications but all i know is that this is a pointless experiment, i probably dont understand the basics of physics but as i said how can you maybe destroy mankind, like the saying goes “curiousoty killed the cat” (sorry for my lack of correct spelling)

  18. Report this comment

    Carl said:

    I want to truly thank you, Ishan, for making it clear to everyone by your post that you, the most blatently ignorant of all the posters on this page, are a self-proclaimed athiest/agnostic. That speaks volumes about those like-minded with you. I always found it to be mysterious and tragic that it always seems to be those, like yourself, that do not believe in a continuation of life after death that treasure their lives the least.

  19. Report this comment

    Jeremy Picard said:

    Can anyone else common on the fact that today, atleast in London, there was massive media coverage with the slant of “If you read this than the world didn’t end.” Not one I found even made a single mention of the real fact that any accident with the lhc is actually most likely to occur when the lhc smashes things together and today was merely a speed test in a single direction and no “colliding” even took place.

  20. Report this comment

    Bill Getas said:

    The one good thing that ever came out of CERN already came out of CERN:

    the World Wide Web

    Let’s move on to solving real problems.

  21. Report this comment

    slice said:

    The ego built the LHC. Its’ tools were money, dopamine, naive humans, curiosity, ignorance. When you narrow it down though, everything will eventually funnel back to the ego.

    Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t conduct scientific experiments like this. I’m saying, we need to be absolutely sure… That something like the LHC will not destroy mankind, before we build it… We must remember, theories, are in no way evidence.

    If we don’t hurry up and destroy the ego, our time on Earth will be no more.

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