Will CERN Destroy The World? (Updated)
No it wont, but a pretty provocative thought eh? Let’s do some research. Bear with me, it’ll be fun, really.
I’ll admit up front that this is a LONG post and includes a lot of jargon, but it is the best, most complete summation of both sides that I could come up with. I’ve included dozens of links to other sites and videos plus a list of resources at the bottom for the LHC, CERN, Higgs Boson and for the End of the World theories too.
What is CERN?
Good question. CERN is an an organization of European nations based in Switzerland with the really smart folks who invented the World Wide Web. Ok, here’s who they are in a bit more detail.
CERN currently has approximately 2,600 full-time employees. Some 7,931 scientists and engineers (representing 500 universities and 80 nationalities), about half of the world’s particle physics community, work on experiments conducted at CERN.
As an international facility, the CERN sites are not officially under Swiss or French jurisdiction and includes the organization’s fleet of fire trucks.
Member states’ contributions to CERN for the year 2008 totaled around USD 990 million.
Most of the activities at CERN are currently directed towards building a new collider, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the experiments for it. The LHC represents a large-scale, worldwide scientific cooperation project. Physics experiments are expected to start May 2008, delayed due to an inner triplet magnet assembly failing a pressure test in March 2007.
The LHC tunnel is located 100 meters underground, in the region between the Geneva airport and the nearby Jura mountains. It uses the 27 km circumference circular tunnel previously occupied by LEP which was closed down in November 2000. CERN’s existing PS/SPS accelerator complexes will be used to pre-accelerate protons which will then be injected into the LHC.
Six experiments (CMS, ATLAS, LHCb, TOTEM, LHC-forward and ALICE) are currently being built, and will be running on the collider; each of them will study particle collisions under a different point of view, and with different technologies.
OK, So What’s the worst that could happen, really?
Holy Fracking S@%# Batman!!! Shut this damn thing down, now!!!
Well, let’s slow down a bit, OK.
What The Doomsayers Predict
Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.” It could wake and summon the Elder gods including Cthulhu. (OK, my idea, but that would be totally cool!) Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Admittedly that’s one cosmic ass-whooping on the planet.
They have filed a lawsuit March 21 in Federal District Court, in Honolulu, seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting CERN from proceeding with the accelerator until it has produced a safety report and an environmental assessment. It names the federal Department of Energy, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the National Science Foundation and CERN as defendants.
A Matter Of Perspective
This all sounds nuts, but really it’s not so nuts that we shouldn’t look into it. There are two causes for some concern: one is that LHC might create a black hole which would eat the Earth, and the other is that a very odd quantum entity called a strangelet might be created, with equally devastating results.
What is different, physicists admit, is that the fragments from cosmic rays will go shooting harmlessly through the Earth at nearly the speed of light, but anything created when the beams meet head-on in the collider will be born at rest relative to the laboratory and so will stick around and thus could create havoc.
From New York Times, March 29, 2008
The new worries are about black holes, which, according to some variants of string theory, could appear at the collider. That possibility, though a long shot, has been widely ballyhooed in many papers and popular articles in the last few years, but would they be dangerous?
According to a paper by the cosmologist Stephen Hawking in 1974, they would rapidly evaporate in a poof of radiation and elementary particles, and thus pose no threat. No one, though, has seen a black hole evaporate.
Lisa Randall, a Harvard physicist whose work helped fuel the speculation about black holes at the collider, pointed out in a paper last year that black holes would probably not be produced at the collider after all, although other effects of so-called quantum gravity might appear.
As part of the safety assessment report, Dr. Mangano and Steve Giddings of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been working intensely for the last few months on a paper exploring all the possibilities of these fearsome black holes. They think there are no problems but are reluctant to talk about their findings until they have been peer reviewed, Dr. Mangano said.
Dr. Arkani-Hamed said concerning worries about the death of the Earth or universe, “Neither has any merit.” He pointed out that because of the dice-throwing nature of quantum physics, there was some probability of almost anything happening. There is some minuscule probability, he said, “the Large Hadron Collider might make dragons that might eat us up.”
From Phil Plait of Badastronomy.com
The LHC will slam subatomic particles together at fantastic speeds. The collision in a sense shatters the particles and all sorts of weird beasties are created in the aftermath. This give physicists insight into the basic quantum nature of the Universe. The higher the energy of the collision, the more interesting stuff you get. LHC will be the most powerful collider ever built, and is expected to provide really new looks at the quantum world.
If two subatomic particles collide at high enough speed, it’s possible that they will collapse into a black hole. If that happens, it would fall through the Earth and, well, you can guess what bad things would happen then*.
However, studies done by CERN show that the energies generated will be too low to make black holes. Also, due to a weird effect called Hawking radiation, the tiny black holes would evaporate instantly. The two litigants, however, say that Hawking radiation is not an established fact, and therefore we should be more careful. While that’s technically true, they forgot something important: the same rules of quantum physics that make a black hole in a subatomic collision also indicate they would evaporate. So if you’re worried they won’t evaporate, then you shouldn’t be worried they’d be created in the first place.
Same goes for the creation of a . This is a weird conglomeration of particles called quarks, and if a strangelet comes into contact with normal matter can convert it into more strangelets. The idea is that these can cause a chain reaction that turns all available matter into strangelets. That would be bad.
However, first, strangelets are completely theoretical, and again even if they are real it’s incredibly unlikely they would be created even by LHC. And even if they were created, the chances of them being a danger are very small. A study a few years ago by physicists at MIT, Yale, and Princeton shows this to be the case; as they point out, higher energy particles hit the Moon all the time. If strangelets could be created in this way, the Moon would have converted to a big ball o’ strangelets billions of years ago.
So I think that considering things like this happening is good — after all, we’re walking into new territory here — but in this particular case the litigants are wrong. A lawsuit seems like overkill. In fact, it’s so odd that my skeptical gland was tweaked, and I decided to look into the litigants’ backgrounds.
Walter Wagner apparently has a physics background, but was involved in a similar lawsuit over the Brookhaven collider a few years back, which turned out to be completely baseless.
As for the other, Luis Sancho, he’s, well, how do I phrase this delicately? He’s a bit outside the mainstream. Actually, way outside the mainstream. In fact, totally and way way far outside the mainstream. I don’t think you can even see the mainstream from where he is.
While dismissing the idea of any danger from LHC due to these factors would be an ad hominem and therefore unfair, I think it adds a dimension to this case that’s good to keep in mind.
Again, I’m not worried. I don’t see any basis for their fears, and certainly not for their lawsuit.
Here is what CERN has to say on this.
Massive black holes are created in the Universe by the collapse of massive stars, which contain enormous amounts of gravitational energy that pulls in surrounding matter. The gravitational pull of a black hole is related to the amount of matter or energy it contains – the less there is, the weaker the pull. Some physicists suggest that microscopic black holes could be produced in the collisions at the LHC. However, these would only be created with the energies of the colliding particles (equivalent to the energies of mosquitoes), so no microscopic black holes produced inside the LHC could generate a strong enough gravitational force to pull in surrounding matter.
If the LHC can produce microscopic black holes, cosmic rays of much higher energies would already have produced many more. Since the Earth is still here, there is no reason to believe that collisions inside the LHC are harmful.
Black holes lose matter through the emission of energy via a process discovered by Stephen Hawking. Any black hole that cannot attract matter, such as those that might be produced at the LHC, will shrink, evaporate and disappear. The smaller the black hole, the faster it vanishes. If microscopic black holes were to be found at the LHC, they would exist only for a fleeting moment. They would be so short-lived that the only way they could be detected would be by detecting the products of their decay.
Studies into the safety of high-energy collisions inside particle accelerators have been conducted in both Europe and the United States by physicists who are not themselves involved in experiments at the LHC. Their analyses have been reviewed by the expert scientific community, which agrees with their conclusion that particle collisions in accelerators are safe. CERN has mandated a group of particle physicists, also not involved in the LHC experiments, to monitor the latest speculations about LHC collisions; this group may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To Sum Things Up
All this is well and good, but why do this at all. All this talk of particles and emissions and 99.9% of light speed and black holes and such. What are they actually looking for and is it worth the slight risk that something planet ending could happen.
In 1964, Peter Higgs, a shy scientist in Edinburgh, added his name to a worthy list of scientists by coming up with an ingenious theory that gave scientists the tools to explain how two classes of particles, which now appear to be different, were once one and the same. His theory proposes the existence of a single particle responsible for imparting mass to all things — a speck so precious it has come to be known as the “God particle.” The scientific term for it is the Higgs boson, and to find it physicists are counting on the LHC at the CERN.
Working from Higgs’ theory, scientists postulate that initially weightless particles move through a ubiquitous quantum field, known as a Higgs field, like a pearl necklace through a jar of honey. Some particles, such as photons — weightless carriers of light — can cut through the sticky Higgs field without picking up mass. Others get bogged down and become heavy; that is the process that creates tangible matter. “The Higgs gives everything in the universe its mass,” says David Francis, a physicist on the ATLAS experiment. Pointing at CERN’s grand geological amphitheater of the Jura and the Alps. “None of that is possible without the Higgs.”
Yet so far no once has been able to find the Higgs boson in the stream of debris emitted when two particles are smashed together at high speeds. Scientists at another CERN particle collider, LEP, felt they came close before the accelerator shut down in 2000. Scientists using the Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab near Chicago are still hoping to publish a discovery before CERN starts analyzing data later this year. Higgs says he is 90% sure that the LHC will find it.
“The Higgs field, the standard model, and our picture of how God made the universe depend on finding the Higgs boson,” wrote Nobel laureate Leon Lederman in his 1993 book The God Particle. Thus, if it exists, the Higgs boson has an enormous effect on the world around us.
In my opinion, yes it is worth it. Does it scare me? Yes it does.
In 1945 very little was known about what the actual effect of an atomic explosion would be prior to its actual detonation. There was one theory, for instance, which suggested the detonation might spark a nasty chain reaction that would burn up the entire atmosphere of the planet Earth, instantly and horrifically killing the entire human race in one fell stroke (and just about every other living thing as well). But great scientists don’t let themselves be stopped by little worries like that. The test went forward.
This test will go forward and for good or bad we will probably learn more about the nature of the Universe, however if you are pulled like a Stretch-Armstrong Doll and sucked into a black-hole or if dragons and or Hell-spawned demons rise out of your toilet, I’ll plausibly deny everything.
UPDATED (CERN Successfully tested the LHC in the early hours of Sept. 10th)
- ‘Big Bang’ experiment starts well
- Scientists Begin Testing World’s Largest Atom Smasher
- CERN Launches Particle Collider
- Congratulations, CERN!
- Question of the day: Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the Earth yet? Has it unleashed Hell-spawned demons? Whew!
- Uncritical thinking kills, from the Bad Astronomer A very sad, must read!
- Here are 27 pictures from CERN and the LHC nearly complete as of late July, 2008 from Boston.com.
- Katherine McAlpine, aka Alpinekat (a scientific editor at Atlas), posted on Youtube and vimo, a rap about the LHC! And it is very cool!
- As the LHC supposedly gears up, Harvard physicist Kevin Black, based at CERN, investigates rumors that the particle accelerator may, in fact, soon be shut down — by ripples from the future?!?
- At roughly 3:30 a.m. Eastern time, Wednesday, September 10th, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, say they will try to send the first beam of protons around a 17-mile-long racetrack known as the Large Hadron Collider, 300 feet underneath the Swiss-French border outside Geneva.And a generation of physicists, watching from control rooms and auditoriums on the scene, on Webcasts at webcast.cern or on Eurovision will meet their destiny. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, outside Chicago, will hold a “pajama party” for staff members and journalists to watch the events live from a remote control room.The collider, 14 years and $8 billion in the making, is the most expensive scientific experiment to date. Thousands of physicists from dozens of countries have been involved in building the collider and its huge particle detectors. It is designed to accelerate protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts — seven times the energy of the next largest machine in the world, Fermilab’s Tevatron — and smash them together.In recent weeks, there has been a blitzkrieg of papers and predictions on what might or might not be discovered, by theorists eager to get their bets down before the figurative roulette ball drops or the dice begin to tumble.
- LHC – The Large Hadron Collider webpage
- Overview of the LHC at CERN’s public webpage
- Challenges in accelerator physics
- LHC UK webpage
- US LHC webpage
- UK Science Museum, London Exhibition supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council
- The Alice experiment
- Compact Muon Solenoid main page
- Compact Muon Solenoid page (U.S. collaboration)
- LCG – The LHC Computing Grid webpage
- The Large Hadron Collider ATLAS Experiment – Virtual Reality (VR) photography panoramas (requires QuickTime)
- LHC startup plan. Includes dates, energies and luminosities
- Seed short film – Lords of the Ring
- ‘Super-collider’ tunnel nears completion The Independent 1 March 2008
- LHC Defense Fund – Anti-LHC organization
- Energising the quest for ‘big theory’
- symmetry magazine LHC special issue
- BBC Horizon, The six billion dollar experiment
- New Yorker: Crash Course. The world’s largest particle accelerator (ca. 6 500 words)
- NYTimes: A Giant Takes On Physics’ Biggest Questions (ca. 4 300 words)
- Beam Parameters and Definitions. The chapter of the LHC Technical Design Report (TDR) that lists of all the beam parameters for the LHC.