I’ve heard some crazy talk in my time, but the fear surrounding the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN has really surprised me. On writing a story last month that a guy in Hawaii (with a scant background in physics) was trying to pass a lawsuit to put a stop to the construction of the LHC, I realised the pressures physicists at the cutting edge of science are under. Physicists the world over have defended the science behind the LHC, and although some of the products from high energy particle collisions are as yet unknown, there is an infinitesimal chance that a black hole will swallow Earth… (I actually want a black hole to be created, the scientific implications will be revolutionary.)
Imagine: The year is 2010 and the LHC has carried out a variety of experiments to help prove and disprove the current state of knowledge about the Universe. All those warnings about the end of the Earth due to a black hole taking over the world and stranglets converting all matter into strange quarks are a distant memory. One experiment, though, has quite literally sent waves of excitement through the scientific world: The Hawking Radiation Experiment. Scientists have created micro black holes in the LHC, which exist for a microsecond, only to fizz out of existence. Not only that, pulses of radio waves have been detected, possibly revealing the subatomic-scale dimensions predicted by string theory…
For now, this is hopeful thinking. I hope we discover that Stephen Hawking was right after all, with experimental proof of Hawking Radiation (this would be a Nobel Prize discovery) emitting from micro-black holes. It would also be nice to be one step closer to the discovery of the Higgs Boson, but for now it is not certain that the energies produced by the LHC will be large enough. As for probing different dimensions, I am not certain this can be done, but this is what experimental physics is all about: experiment. For everyone who says “this is a huge waste of money, we have enough problems on Earth without wasting billions on crashing particles together“, you are wrong.
I don’t make any apology for having a hard-line stance for scientific development and discovery. History has taught us that scientific exploration has both harmed and benefited mankind (yes, the atomic bomb isn’t nice, but nuclear energy may well save us from our excessive consumption of energy; yes, the ICBM is now the harbinger of doom, but without that technology we wouldn’t be exploring space…), but through this development, the human race is beginning to understand the building blocks of our Universe, and the consequences of such will push us into a new era of existence. Who knows where this may lead? What’s more the LHC has been developed through peaceful applications, there is very little military application behind the science of the LHC, so the negative side of science does not apply.
So, back to the LHC. This is a very carefully thought out project. This $8 billion experiment has been constructed to probe the very small (sub-atomic particles) so we can better understand the very big (the Universe, space-time and extra-dimensions). Without this experiment, superstring theory will be no closer to being proven, Hawking Radiation will remain a theoretical curiosity and the hunt for the Higgs Boson can be abandoned. So when people with little or no understanding of the physics behind the LHC come forward claiming that they have another view that the LHC will “actually destroy the planet, and quite possibly, the entire universe“, I feel frustrated for the scientists who’s careers have been spent researching and constructing the biggest experiment we have ever conceived. They know from endless tests, theory, experiment and logic that the LHC is safe (well, to a very high degree of accuracy – after all, these are physicists), but they must defend their project and explain why the thing was built in the first place.
I can understand the fear that may be generated to non-scientists when we talk about “the highest energy collisions ever created by man“, but after careful consideration it should be realised that these collisions are happening every second in nature. Think about the supernovae, gamma ray bursts and stellar collisions occurring in nearby galaxies. To my knowledge, there’s been no space-time rip destroying life on Earth (and if we believe the reasoning behind these sensational claims that the LHC will cause disastrous perturbations in space-time, these cosmic events have far more energy and mass to cause problems than the mere spark the LHC will produce). But hold on, there are collisions of higher energies happening right here on Earth, naturally. Cosmic rays of massive energies impact our atmosphere every day, in fact, we are bathed in them! Is the world still here? I believe so.
In response to the claims that the LHC could be dangerous, CERN has a very informative website addressing these worries. Critically, just in case anyone is concerned about the creation of an Earth-eating black hole, this is pretty much impossible. Stellar black holes are gravitationally dominated singularities, their destructive power is characterised by how massive they are. The huge mass of a star 20 times the size of our Sun collapses in on itself to form a stellar black hole. The sheer mass of this black hole will pull all available local matter into its event horizon. The mass input vastly overwhelms the mass loss through Hawking evaporation – therefore the black hole will grow (if there is enough matter this stellar black hole may form an intermediate-size black hole, the link between stellar and supermassive black holes). In comparison, the possible micro-black holes created from the LHC will have a miniscule mass; they will have nearly zero gravitational effect on local matter. These micro-black holes cannot grow. In addition, should Hawking radiation be a reality, mass loss will outweigh mass input, meaning these tiny entities will evaporate exceedingly fast. A logical conclusion is therefore: micro-black holes pose no risk to the world.
Claims by the likes of Walter Wagner of Hawaii suddenly seem like a storyline from a terrible science fiction comic:
“Eventually, all of earth would fall into such growing micro-black-hole, converting earth into a medium-sized black hole, around which would continue to orbit the moon, satellites, the ISS, etc.” – Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu.
I must admit, I am quite impressed with his imagination – for a black hole to rampage and take over the Earth only for the satellites, ISS and the Moon to orbit around this Earth-sized black hole as if nothing had happened epitomizes the amazing science he is claiming.
Of course, these claims make for great media coverage. As the LHC switch-on date nears (summer 2008), this extra coverage is no bad thing, it simply provides particle physicists the ideal opportunity to flex their debating muscles and argue that beyond all reasonable doubt the LHC is safe and ready to begin its first science runs. We are on the cusp of a new era of physics, I’m so happy to be alive at this historic time in the advancement of human kind.
And in case you are still unconvinced, here’s an extract from the LHC safety statement at CERN:
“The total energy in each beam of protons in the LHC is equivalent to a 400 tonne train (like the French TGV) travelling at 150 km/h. However, only an infinitesimal part of this energy is released in each particle collision – roughly equivalent to the energy of a dozen flying mosquitoes. In fact, whenever you try to swat a mosquito by clapping your hands together, you create a collision energy much higher than the protons inside the LHC. The LHC’s speciality is its impressive ability to concentrate this collision energy into a minuscule area on a subatomic scale. But even this capability is just a pale shadow of what Nature achieves routinely in cosmic-ray collisions.” – CERN – Safety at the LHC.