by Alan Boyle/ MSNBC.com science editor
A hardhat worker is dwarfed by the inner workings of the Large Hadron
Collider's ATLAS detector. Click on the image for a larger version. (EIROforum / CERN)
The builders of the world's biggest particle collider are being sued in federal court over fears that the experiment might create globe-gobbling black holes or never-before-seen strains of matter that would destroy the planet.
Representatives at Fermilab in Illinois and at Europe's CERN
laboratory, two of the defendants in the case, say there's no chance
that the Large Hadron Collider
would cause such cosmic catastrophes. Nevertheless, they're bracing to
defend themselves in the courtroom as well as the court of public
The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, is due for startup later this
year at CERN's headquarters on the French-Swiss border. It's expected
to tackle some of the deepest questions in science: Is the foundation of modern physics right or wrong? What existed during the very first moment of the universe's existence? Why do some particles have mass while others don't? What is the nature of dark matter? Are there extra dimensions of space out there that we haven't yet detected?
Some folks outside the scientific mainstream have asked darker questions as well: Could the collider create mini-black holes that last long enough and get big enough to turn into a matter-sucking maelstrom? Could exotic particles known as magnetic monopoles throw atomic nuclei out of whack? Could quarks recombine into "strangelets" that would turn the whole Earth into one big lump of exotic matter?
Former nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner has been raising such questions for years - first about an earlier-generation "big bang machine" known as the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider, and more recently about the LHC.
Last Friday, Wagner and another critic of the LHC's safety measures,
Luis Sancho, filed a lawsuit in Hawaii's U.S. District Court. The
suit calls on the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermilab, the National
Science Foundation and CERN to ease up on their LHC preparations for
several months while the collider's safety was reassessed.
"We're going to need a minimum of four months to review whatever
they're putting out," Wagner told me on Monday. The suit seeks a
temporary restraining order that would put the LHC on hold, pending the
release and review of an updated CERN safety assessment. It also calls
on the U.S. government to do a full environmental review addressing the
LHC project, including the debate over the doomsday scenario.
On Monday, District Judge Helen Gillmor assigned the case to a
magistrate judge, Kevin S.C. Chang, for an initial conference on June
16. Wagner said he planned to ask for a more immediate hearing on the
request for a restraining order - that is, once he has served the
federal government with the court papers.
The case is currently being handled by the U.S. attorney's office in
Hawaii, where Wagner and Sancho both live,`but that may not necessarily
be where the legal proceedings end up. The Justice Department's
Environmental and Natural Resources Division, based in Washington, is
also being brought in on the case, assistant U.S. attorney Derrick
Watson told me in an e-mail Wednesday.
In Washington, Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames noted that
the court papers had not yet been received. "We don't have any
comment," he told me Thursday. "We'll comment in court when it's
The defense attorneys would
likely dwell on the regulatory and procedural questions rather than the
worries over a cosmic catastrophe. Those worries have been around for
years, and most physicists have scoffed at them for almost as long. The
doomsday scenarios raised by Sancho and Wagner include:
- Runaway black holes: Some physicists say the LHC
could create microscopic black holes that would hang around for just a
tiny fraction of a second and then decay. Sancho and Wagner worry that
millions of black holes might somehow persist and coalesce into a
compact gravitational mass that would draw in other matter and grow
bigger. That's pure science fiction, said Michio Kaku, a theoretical
physicist at the City College of New York. "These black holes don't
live very long, and they have microscopic energy, and so they are
harmless," he told me.
- Strangelets: Smashing protons together at
high enough energies could create new combinations of quarks, the
particles that protons are made of. Sancho and Wagner worry that a
nasty combination known as a stable, negatively charged strangelet
could theoretically turn everything it touches into strangelets as
well. Kaku compared this to the ancient myth of the Midas touch.
"We see no evidence of this bizarre theory," he said. "Once in a while,
we trot it out to scare the pants off people. But it's not serious."
- Magnetic monopoles: One theory suggests that
high-energy particle collisions might give rise to massive particles
that have only one magnetic pole - only north, or only south, but not
the north-south magnetism that dominates nature. Sancho and Wagner
worry that such particles could be created in the LHC and start a
runaway reaction that converts atoms into other forms of matter. But
physicists have seen no evidence of such reactions, which should have
occurred already as the result of more energetic cosmic-ray collisions
in Earth's upper atmosphere.
The cosmic-ray argument has been applied to the black-hole and
strangelet scenarios as well. If such dangerous things can be created,
why haven't they already eaten up Earth, along with other planets,
stars or whole galaxies in the billions of years since the universe
arose? To answer that question, Sancho and Wagner pose a counterargument:
Perhaps cosmic-ray collisions really are creating tiny black holes or
strangelets, but those little bits of doomsday zip by too fast to cause
any trouble. In the LHC, they say, the bad stuff could hang around long
enough to be captured by Earth's gravity and set off a catastrophe.
In response, particle physicists are developing
counter-counterarguments - based on their theoretical work as well as
data from astronomical observations and experiments at the Relativistic
Heavy-Ion Collider. For instance, the physicists would say that enough
of the doomsday particles still should have been captured by neutron
stars or cosmic gas clouds to have an impact. No such impact has ever
been seen. Therefore, no doomsday.
CERN spokesman James Gillies told me that a 2003 assessment of the doomsday scenarios
was being updated with the new information. Release of that updated
report - the one that Sancho and Wagner apparently have been waiting
for - is "imminent," Gillies told me.
Questions about the doomsday scenarios may well come up at CERN on April 6, during a public open house
at the LHC. Some researchers have gotten the word to be prepared to
talk about microscopic black holes and strangelets if asked.
Saying something is absolutely impossible doesn't always come easy.
Some scientists find it difficult to state categorically that
such-and-such a theoretical catastrophe has no chance of happening, and
Fermilab spokeswoman Judy Jackson told me that the doomsayers have
"cynically distorted" that natural reluctance to rule out even the most
outlandish theoretical possibilities.
The doomsaying can continue as long as scientists hold out even a
tiny sliver of uncertainty. Jackson cited the example of Paul Dixon, a
psychology professor at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who has been
saying for more than a decade that experiments at Fermilab's Tevatron accelerator are in danger of touching off an artificial supernova. Dixon is still going strong: He submitted an affidavit in support of the LHC lawsuit filed by Sancho and Wagner.
The current lawsuit could well be decided not by scientific
arguments but rather by narrower regulatory issues. On that point,
Jackson said that Fermilab has followed U.S. environmental regulations,
just as CERN has followed European regulations. "Of course there are plenty of environmental laws and regulations, and they have all been followed to the letter," she said.
However, Jackson said CERN shouldn't be held to U.S. requirements
when it comes to operating the LHC - even if the collider happens to
be using magnets built by Fermilab. "Just because we built them doesn't
mean we have any say over French environmental regulations," she said.
For his part, Wagner said he hoped Fermilab and the other defendants
in the lawsuit would take another look at the doomsday scenarios - and
speculated that a restraining order might not even be necessary. He
noted that the startup schedule for the LHC has been repeatedly
delayed, which would give more time for further safety assessments.
(CERN's schedule currently calls for first collisions by the end of
August, and the word is that the collider may not reach its full power
of 14 trillion electron-volts until next year.)
Wagner suggested that cosmic-ray observations by the Pierre Auger Observatory and the yet-to-be-launched Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope,
or GLAST, could shed new light on the debate. "The way I look at it,
this should be a basis to look for more funding to find a solution to
the problems we raised," he told me.
I'm pretty sure most physicists won't see it that way. They're
generally anxious to spend their time and their grant money using the
LHC rather than chasing down cosmic improbabilities. The
doomsday lawsuit could conceivably be dismissed once it comes up for a
hearing - that's basically what happened to Wagner's earlier lawsuit
against the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider. But in the meantime, feel
free to make your own arguments, counterarguments and
counter-counterarguments in the comment section below.
Bonus round: For a different perspective on doomsday, check out this little tale from the late science-fiction great Arthur C. Clarke.
Update for 2:20 a.m. ET March 27: Documents relating to Sancho v. Department of Energy have been uploaded to LHC Concerns, a Web site that voices worries about the Large Hadron Collider. Also, CERN has a Web page that addresses the worries, plus links to safety reports for the Large Hadron Collider and the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider. You'll find more discussion of all this on Slashdot.