The Large Hadron Collider
Could the upcoming launch of the world’s biggest atomic particle smasher – nicknamed the Big Bang Machine – touch off a cataclysmic event that dooms our planet?
That’s the fear of some critics of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which is built to slam protons together at an unprecedented peak energy of 14 trillion electron volts – nearing levels scientists believe were reached in the first microseconds after the “big bang.”
The critics have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government and the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, known as CERN, as scientists prepare to bring the collider online in July.
Co-plaintiffs Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho fear that when the collider reaches full power, it could create black holes or strangelets that would grow and eventually consume the Earth.
A black hole is a region of space so dense that light cannot escape its gravitational pull. Scientists have not proved the existence of strangelets, a hypothetical cosmological object containing an exotic form of matter.
Physicists at CERN and similar research facilities dismiss the doomsday claim as nonsense. But Wagner, a former nuclear safety officer who says he’s studied physics for more than 30 years, wants the project shelved for four months to allow time for further safety reviews.
Fermilab in Illinois, which has the lead U.S. role in the Large Hadron Collider, also is a defendant in the suit, along with the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, according to MSNBC.
The Justice Department says it will not comment on the case before it files a response next month.
Federal attorneys are not expected to focus on the black hole question. They have successfully handled previous lawsuits by Wagner by narrowing their defense to issues such as claims the government and government-funded scientists have complied with environmental guidelines.
Scientists at CERN hope to see the first low-power proton collisions later this summer or in the fall. The collider will not reach full power – the big bang energies – until next year. By that time the Justice Department hopes the legal issues will be resolved.
Instant car melter
Fermilab currently has the world’s largest collider, with a circumference of about four miles. But the new particle accelerator, buried an average of 100 meters below the border between France and Switzerland, is 17 miles around and will have seven times the energy of Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator.
The particle smashers, used to study the nuclei of atoms, take two beams of protons and smash them together after reaching extremely high energies. Scientists hope, in the process, to discover new types of smaller particles, known as quarks.
The beam of energy produced by the Swiss collider will be powerful enough to melt a small car almost instantly.
Wagner insisted safety reports he has seen so far do not rule out his black-hole scenario.
“For all I know, they will come up with some other novel argument that proves this can’t happen,” he said, according to MSNBC. “We want to see an argument that absolutely proves it … because otherwise it ends up being [a statement that] ‘we have no way of calculating.’ And that, to me, is a scary proposition.”
But theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, author of “Physics of the Impossible,” said in a February MSNBC interview he isn’t worried.
“I’m going to sleep well when that machine is turned on, because I know that cosmic rays have more energy than the Large Hadron Collider, and you don’t see black holes from outer space,” he said. “These are microscopic in size, and they don’t last long.”
Wagner further explained his concerns to Vancouver, B.C.’s Straight.com
“A micro black hole would simply bounce around, hitting other atoms and absorbing them into itself,” he said, then, over a period of months or years the reaction would eventually grow to swallow the Earth.
Wagner said a strangelet is potentially more stable than existing matter. Therefore, he said, if one were created inside the collider, it would convert any matter it touched into a part of itself.
“The larger atom would eventually convert all of the Earth into a large strange atom,” Wagner told Straight.com
Wagner’s complaint for a temporary restraining order to halt the project reads in part:
“There is no question that should defendants inadvertently create a dangerous form of matter … or otherwise create unsafe conditions of physics, then the environmental impact would be both local and national in scope, and quite deadly to everyone.”
A Canadian scientist who works on the project, Dugan O’Neil of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, admitted to Straight.com that it’s impossible to completely rule out some “very strange things” resulting from the new mega-collider. He, nevertheless, is not too concerned.
“It would be fascinating if those theories were right,” O’Neil, said, somewhat in jest. “But the probability that they’re right is exceedingly small.”
O’Neil argued “there’s no evidence that microscopic black holes exist; there’s no evidence that strangelets exist.”
Missing the creator for the particles?
John Conway, a University of California at Davis professor of physics and collaborator on the project, calls the collider “the greatest engineering feat of all mankind.”
“It took the combined resources of nearly all of the countries in the world and thousand and thousands of scientists,” he told the California Aggie, his school’s newspaper. “People started designing this in the early 1990s and only now is it reaching completion.”
A Straight.com reader, however, conveyed a different perspective on the project in a letter to the editor.
Michael Hey said it’s reassuring to know there’s only a small chance the collider will suck the Earth into a minature black hole, but there is a “more realistic peril.”
“Consider the possibility that this research represents an intellectual dead end,” he said. “Unfortunately, since so much money has been invested into a particular way of thinking about the world, it has become next to impossible for leading physicists to remain truly open-minded about what the universe is really telling us.”
Hey reasoned that instead of expending more and more energy to “divide space,” wouldn’t it “make more sense to abandon the search for a fundamental particle in favor of a fundamental pattern of creation?”
“The Large Hadron Collider represents a monumental technological achievement,” he allowed. “Unfortunately, this leaves ordinary people mystified and confused, stuck with the pervasive (and, to my mind, mistaken) impression that physics can only be understood by physicists.”