Saturday, March 29, 2008

End of the world as we (don't) know it...

Two men have have filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Hawaii to stop work at the world's largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, located in Europe. They fear that the collider may produce something(s) that may result in the destruction of the Earth, or worse, the destruction of the entire universe. Apart from the nuttiness of these suggestions, my first reaction is: hmm...a particle accelerator that can destroy the entire universe must be very cool (I mean the universe is really really really big, and us, tiny humans, can cause the end of the universe consisting of over a hundred billion galaxies!). But what is going on with the lawsuit:

The world’s physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or 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.” Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

And why have the lawsuit against a European collider in Hawaii?

Why should CERN, an organization of European nations based in Switzerland, even show up in a Hawaiian courtroom?

In an interview, Mr. Wagner said, “I don’t know if they’re going to show up.” CERN would have to voluntarily submit to the court’s jurisdiction, he said, adding that he and Mr. Sancho could have sued in France or Switzerland, but to save expenses they had added CERN to the docket here. He claimed that a restraining order on Fermilab and the Energy Department, which helps to supply and maintain the accelerator’s massive superconducting magnets, would shut down the project anyway.

James Gillies, head of communications at CERN, said the laboratory as of yet had no comment on the suit. “It’s hard to see how a district court in Hawaii has jurisdiction over an intergovernmental organization in Europe,” Mr. Gillies said.

Wait a minute. The entire Earth is at risk, and these guys are trying to save expenses!! On a more serious note, physicists do talk about a remote possibility of the production of tiny black holes (which have never been seen before), but still do not expect them to last long (again a process which never been observed):

The Large Hadron Collider is designed to fire up protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts before banging them together. Nothing, indeed, will happen in the CERN collider that does not happen 100,000 times a day from cosmic rays in the atmosphere, said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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.

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.

As a result, Mr. Wagner and Mr. Sancho contend in their complaint, black holes could really be stable, and a micro black hole created by the collider could grow, eventually swallowing the Earth.

But William Unruh, of the University of British Columbia, whose paper exploring the limits of Dr. Hawking’s radiation process was referenced on Mr. Wagner’s Web site, said they had missed his point. “Maybe physics really is so weird as to not have black holes evaporate,” he said. “But it would really, really have to be weird.”

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.”

And here I actually side with the lawsuit - we know dragons are dangerous and can wreak havoc on the planet. Apart from all the silliness, the collider seems awesome and it should be able to address some fundamental questions of particle physics, and, among other things, may even find the elusive Higgs boson. Read the full story here. If you have time, also read this excellent Scientific American article on the Large Hadron Collider.

On a related note of doomsday, some members of a Russian doomsday cult have been living in a cave for the past five months. The members believe that the world is going to end in May of this year. Hmm...and what is the starting date for the Large Hadron Collider? Just a coincidence? :) In any case, seven members of the sect have come out of the cave recently and renewed efforts are underway to get the remaining members out. Read about their latest situation here.


r r bhatia said...

i too was wondering about these 2 reports of the "LHC's black hole" and the "Russian cult" coming together, what do u think this means ? Are we all right to ignore every single prophecy of the end of the world ? And why do the boffins at CERN need to conduct this experiment, even though they know they dont completely know what might the results of the collision be ? What would they get by knowing the conditions at the time of the big bang ? Is this knowledge necessary for our survival ?

Salman Hameed said...

hmm...I hope you are joking about the prophecy part (I definitely was).

And yes, this knowledge is necessary for our survival - as curious species.

Peter Mc said...

CERN should countersue and tell them to shut those polluting Hawaiian volcanoes down.

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