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Eric Johnson drops Bunkerbuster on CERN

January 10th, 2010

Young lawyer’s remarkable treatise is thorough update on LHC danger, treated as legal issue

90 page analysis renders safety doubts respectable, highlights holes in CERN’s Swiss cheese safety claims

Author says he does not expect gamble with globe to be halted, but some hope he will have influence

CERN's Large Hadron Collider may have the ability to split the fabric of the universe, an inadvertent result of the plan to rev it up to full 7 TeV power in a couple of years, a step which shows no sign of being reassessed despite the alarming points that continue to be raised by qualified critics, and a record so far of vulnerability to design flaws, crumbling safety arguments from CERN, and revisions of theory which suggest a potentially catastrophic comedy of errors and incompetence.One of the more remarkable documents challenging the wisdom of scientific leaders has appeared on the Web. The paper has just been published in the Tennessee Law Review by an assistant law professor at the University of North Dakota, one Eric E. Johnson. A pdf version has been posted (Wed, Dec 30, 2009) on arXiv (“archive”) the physics papers site, at The Black Hole Case: The Injunction Against the End of the World by Eric E. Johnson.

The footnoted, precisely worded and well researched paper brings to bear the kind of legal reasoning that can be expected from a good, Harvard educated lawyer, member of a species that seems to be better trained in logic than the average scientist, one has to say.

All who wish to be fully briefed in the matter, and why they should take it seriously, should download and print out this exemplary analysis, which in its clarity and exposure of the folly of the scientists concerned is highly entertaining, as long as one overlooks the vast consequences in play which otherwise lend the utmost seriousness to the issue, once one is persuaded to take it seriously, which Johnson’s full analysis may lead you to do.

Dissecting the LHC defenses

Purporting to be a brief for any judge who might have to make a decision on the matter, his analysis in fact judiciously but thoroughly takes apart the defense of CERN scientists against LHC critics. It brilliantly illuminates the case for halting the LHC in Geneva (see previous post) while outside review of its risk of global catastrophe is carried out. Laying out the evidence from the papers that have been published Johnson notes, as we have, that contrary to some of the statements of CERN scientists and their public relations staff, the risk is clearly higher than zero, and there are many sociological reasons for for putting it on a leash. This, without even including all that can be said against CERN’s hypocritical public reassurance that safety is 100% assured, which we will add in later posts on this blog.

What should a court do with a preliminary-injunction request to halt a multi-billion-dollar particle-physics experiment that plaintiffs claim could create a black hole that will devour the planet? The real-life case of CERN’s LHC seems like a legal classic in the making. Unfortunately, however, no court has braved the extreme factual terrain to reach the merits. This article steps into the void. First, the relevant facts of the scientific debate and its human context are memorialized and made ripe for legal analysis. Next, the article explores the daunting challenges the case presents to equity, evidence, and law-and-economics analysis. Finally, a set of analytical tools are offered that provide a way out of the thicket – a method for providing meaningful judicial review even in cases, such as this one, where the scientific issues are almost unfathomably complex.
Comments: 90 pages, 1 table, published in the Tennessee Law Review, vol 76, pp. 819-908 (2009). Version2: fixes font rendering problems experienced with some pdf viewers
Subjects: Physics and Society (physics.soc-ph); History of Physics (physics.hist-ph)
Journal reference: 76 Tenn. L. Rev. 819 (2009)

The piece is available as a pdf download, also linked at the top right of the arXiv page. The presentation is factual and powerfully so, though politically discreet, as befits a professor who has a full teaching schedule at a respected school of law. It politely ends with saying that Johnson is not himself fearful opf the outcome of the LHC experiments, but merely providing a helpful brief for any judge that might have to deal with the matter. He is also respectful of the scientists involved, as can be seen by his phrase above, counting the scientific issues as “almost unfathomably complex”.

Who is Eric Johnson?

Who is this remarkable author, who has carried out such an exemplary piece of research and writing? Here is his biography, and introduction to his masterwork:

Assistant Professor of Law Eric Johnson of the University of North Dakota has written a thorough analysis of the LHC issue and how it might be treated by the courtsEric E. Johnson Assistant Professor of Law at the University of North Dakota has written a 90 page summary of the problem the issue poses to the courts in the Tennessee Law Review . His paper is available as a pdf at The Black-Hole Case: The Injunction Against the End of the World, 76 Tennessee Law Review 819 (2009) (Eric E. Johnson is an interesting fellow, being a 2000 Harvard Law School graduate after the University of Texas at Austin (1994) who has a blog, Pixelization, on intellectual property and entertainment law, another, The Backbencher, a “humorous take on the law, laywering and his life as a law professor”, and has been “a top-40 radio disc jockey, a stand-up comic, and a consultant at an early-stage internet start-up. In 2005, he was awarded a patent on a headrest he invented for patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.”) His earlier writings on the topic are collected on his site page Black Holes and the Law:

The Black Hole Case: The Injunction Against the End of the World

Eric E. Johnson
(Submitted on 30 Dec 2009 (v1), last revised 31 Dec 2009 (this version, v2))
What should a court do with a preliminary-injunction request to halt a multi-billion-dollar particle-physics experiment that plaintiffs claim could create a black hole that will devour the planet? The real-life case of CERN’s LHC seems like a legal classic in the making. Unfortunately, however, no court has braved the extreme factual terrain to reach the merits. This article steps into the void. First, the relevant facts of the scientific debate and its human context are memorialized and made ripe for legal analysis. Next, the article explores the daunting challenges the case presents to equity, evidence, and law-and-economics analysis. Finally, a set of analytical tools are offered that provide a way out of the thicket – a method for providing meaningful judicial review even in cases, such as this one, where the scientific issues are almost unfathomably complex.
Comments: 90 pages, 1 table, published in the Tennessee Law Review, vol 76, pp. 819-908 (2009). Version2: fixes font rendering problems experienced with some pdf viewers
Subjects: Physics and Society (physics.soc-ph); History of Physics (physics.hist-ph)
Journal reference: 76 Tenn. L. Rev. 819 (2009)
Cite as: arXiv:0912.5480v2 [physics.soc-ph]

In this article, I explore the LHC case having two goals in mind.
My first aim is to fill a gap in the reporter volumes. The black hole case has all the makings of a law-school classic. The clash of extremes provides an exceptional vehicle for probing our notions of fairness and how we regard the role of the courts. But jurisdictional hurdles have prevented any lawsuit from progressing to the issuance of an opinion on the merits, and no litigation on the
horizon appears likely to get there.

Therefore, I have endeavored to write up the case in a way that makes it ripe for review, discussion, and debate. In this way, I hope this article may serve some readers in the same way that Lon L.
Fuller’s “Case of the Speluncean Explorers” has served generations of law students by teeing up classic questions of legal philosophy.
My second purpose in writing is less playful. I intend to provide a set of analytical and theoretical tools that are usable in the courts for dealing with this case and cases like it. If litigation over the LHC does not put a judge in the position of saving the world, another case soon might. In a technological age of human-induced climate change, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificially intelligent machines, and other potential threats, the odds of the courts confronting a real doomsday scenario in the near future are decidedly non-trivial. If the courts are going to be able to play their role in upholding the rule of law in such super-extreme environments, then the courts need analytical methods that will allow for making fair and principled decisions despite the challenges such cases present.

In the pages ahead, I recount the LHC/black-hole controversy, looking into the purely scientific aspects of the debate as well as its social and political sides. Then, I review problems that face plaintiffs trying to enjoin the LHC’s operation. After that, I explore the judicial conundrums inherent in black-hole jurisprudence. Finally, I suggest new methods for judging the merits of cases of this kind.

The origin of his paper

Johnson’s mammoth paper indicates that his thoughts on the LHC were first worked out on a blog, PrawfsBlawg, where readers comments helped him refine his account. Those new to the topic may like to whet their appetite on these pages first, since they were written in October and November 2008, just before the LHC was switched on, only to fall apart for the second time, and the comments are fresh to the topic also.

Though the typically confident but thoughtless reassurances of under researched scientists immediately appear (“As a scientist by training and a 3L now, I think you’re putting shocking little faith in scientists. Do you think physicists would build a research machine capable of sucking the world in to it? (Weapon, maybe, but not something for research.) I understand that there’s a lot of FUD going around about this, but there isn’t a credible risk. – Posted by: Ben | Oct 22, 2008 8:23:55 AM) the approach taken by the author – to explore the legal recourse available to concerned outsiders – cleverly puts the inquiry on a firm footing.

Black Holes and the Law
Resources about the legal controversy over the safety of the Large Hadron Collider
It’s one of the most interesting and daunting judicial controversies to come around in a long time: A few very worried individuals claim that a brand new, multi-billion-dollar largest-of-its-kind particle accelerator under Switzerland and France, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, could create a black hole capable of devouring the Earth.
The controversy raises an number of fascinating questions and conundrums of jurisprudence, equity, remedies, civil procedure, evidence, epistemology, and international law.
This web page is an ongoing effort to collect information, documents, and links to enable people to explore this intriguing case.

Among the first comments is one by Luis Sancho, the lead plaintiff in the case brought against the LHC in Hawaii:

As the lead plaintiff of the case Sancho vs. Doe (Department of Energy), I might be considered biased towards the defence of the Natural Law that applies to this cause: any remote chance of mass-murdering – let us use the proper terms – 6 billion people must be considered an act of terrorism, which falls under the jurisdiction of the patriot act. When one considers the authority of truth, the laws of the scientific method and experimental evidence, it turns out that regardless of CERN’s marketing campaign and 13 billion $ budget, with its industrial, scholar and political interests, the risk is huge and it grows as scientific evidence grows. If one considers the lies, these days called marketing of CERN, the situation of criminal negligence is obvious……

Sancho is somewhat language challenged, as you can see, but this young physicist, a specialist in “time theory”, feels very strongly about the dangers involved and behind his language difficulty is apparently professionally qualified to comment with expertise, contrary to his dismissal by CERN, as he asserts:

the disqualification of cern on our credentials as scientists is bogus. And though i dont like to talk in personal terms, it seems needed to rebate (rebut) them. I am the world chair of the science of (time) duality, increasingly regarded as the most advanced theory of time, which studies the universe not as they do, with the single arrow of entropy, energy and death, but also with the arrow of information and life, that nuclear physicists still deny, but all other scientists today accept.

Sancho also correctly states that the CERN cosmic ray argument generally served up to the public and press is untrue, which as we have pointed out is confirmed by CERN’s own report, and justifiably complains of the media ignorantly accepting the statements of CERN without further research.

He provides links for readers to evaluate his claims further. The most accessible is a 6 minute video on YouTube at Quantum Roulette (June 25 2009) , which so far has garnered only 1539 views, and 9 comments (“either way. you can’t do anything? about it now. they’re protected. they could foresee idiots being afraid of everything, including the next step in advancement of our planet and be afraid of what “could happen”.” – ModelDoll) compared with 3,693,105 for this simple image of the Earth being swallowed by a black hole in 38 seconds, which has 13,859 comments (“I regret watching that.”- burgharboy), and is most viewed in the Soviet Union.)

Frank Wilczek reveals why LHC critics don’t worry boosters

The former six minute video is well worth viewing. For the record, it features a Scientific American cover (“Catastrophysics! – What makes a Star Blow up? The Mystery of a Supernova – Quarks!)…. a wide eyed Yves Schutz, “experimental physicist” in hard hat, explaining ALICE will smash massive lead nuclei together to create a quark factory of 1 million quarks a second…. the Frank Wilczek Ford-MIT lecture “The Universe is a Strange Place”, where Nobel physicist (in 2004, for the discovery of asymptotic freedom and the theory of the strong interaction) Wilczek warned quarks could detonate Earth into a supernova, and when asked if high energy collisions that produced black holes could be dangerous, said it was true that “otherwise respectable” physicists had suggested just such a thing…. then a view of the snow covered ground above the LHC, which “(commentator) will deliver a billion times the amount of power by the accelerator used to research the atomic bomb, enough energy to create a black hole,” …..then Frank saying “it is always a logical possibility when you do something that has never been done before, that it will lead to a catastrophe”…. subtitle on video as he talks reads CERN’s chief said “Frank is 10x smarter than I am, but he is naive…”

Frank Wilczek won the Nobel in 2004 for his theory of how subatomic particles behaved, but he doesn't take the theoretical danger of black holes at the LHC seriously, and reasons that if he is wrong no one will be alive to blame himNow Frank Wilczek continues with a surprisingly revealing statement: “I have never been so confident in making a prediction as when I was called to sit on a panel about an accelerator turning on and ending the world, predicting that it won’t is very safe because if your prediction is wrong—-” (throws hands up in air to audience laughter and nerdy, sounded with each breath sucked-in-Eric-Kandel-style giggle from the questioner)…. legend on video reads “so CERN instructed officials to say zero risk – New Yorker, then CERN paid Franz to sign a zero risk report, soon he won a Nobel prize, “OK so I think with that it is appropriate to end here and I will answer further questions in private thank you.”

The Wilczek syndrome

This of course is typical behavior these days on the part of physicists concerned with the CERN project and any other scientist these days (s in HIV/AIDS) where their public posture has to be more polite than honest about their own doubts.

The video then wrongly states that Wilczek afterwards wrote to Scientific American together with Walter Wagner, the physicist that originally raised safety concerns in regard top earlier US accelerators, implying that both were”warning against the risks of creating dark matter here on earth (commentator)”.

In fact Wagner wrote to Scientific American in 1999 rebutting the reassurances in a July letter from Wilczek, which was in response to Wagner’s earlier letter expressing concern. Wagner’s second letter is worth quoting here:

Man-made disasters have always been preceded by an excessive degree of arrogance on the part of the persons involved. The Titanic and Hindenberg disasters of earlier generations, and the Apollo launch-pad fire and Challenger disasters of our generation, all involved large numbers of scientists and engineers dedicated to the success of their project. In each such disaster, a key factor was overlooked or ignored, leading to deadly consequences…..
Also contrary to Frank Wilczek’s assertion, “strangelets” are a major theoretical problem at Brookhaven, and even if starting out very small (which theory shows they should), could prove quite aggressive by an overlooked mechanism……
Finally, Frank Wilczek seems to have overlooked a fundamental principle of physics. While admittedly cosmic rays have energies measured which exceed the 40,000 GeV of the RHIC, it is the center-of-momentum (COM) energy which is the fundamental criteria, not the earth-reference-frame energy. That is the very reason for building colliders, rather than fixed-target accelerators. An incoming cosmic ray, in order to mimic the RHIC, would be required to have about 4,000,000 GeV, which would produce a COM energy of about 40,000 GeV, the same as the RHIC COM energy. Reports of such cosmic rays are exceedingly rare, and have extremely wide error-bars….

Possibly the errors he pointed out were considered too impolitely phrased to print.

The video then features motion graphics and the voice of Wagner saying that “mini black holes could be created by smashing a proton into an anti proton with enough energy, and if one were created near a large concentration of mass, and started absorbing that mass before exploding, the black hole could reach a relatively stable half life and continue to grow. If this happened on the earth the mini black hole would be drawn by gravity towards the center of the planet absorbing matter along the way devouring the entire Earth in minutes.” Legend on the video reads “In 2009 LHC will make a black hole per second” as the Earth is shown disappearing down a broadening hole in its surface.

An independent legal mind

Eric Johnson, law professorWho is Eric Johnson? His email is Eric E. Johnson . His faculty listing at the school of law in the University of North Dakota is at Eric E. Johnson, which offers his bio at Eric E. Johnson, his course materials, and his courses.

Professor Johnson received his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where he was a member of the Board of Student Advisers and an instructor in legal reasoning and argument. He received his B.A. from the Plan II program at the University of Texas at Austin in 1994.

Eric Johnson, bane of CERN PRAfter law school, Professor Johnson was an associate in the litigation and intellectual-property litigation practices at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles, where his clients included Paramount, MTV, CBS, Touchstone, Immersion Corporation, and the bankruptcy estate of At Irell, Johnson’s matters included claims of patent infringement in the video-game industry, copyright infringement of a television series, breach of a motion-picture director’s contract, and breach of a profit-participation clause in a television executive-producer’s contract. Professor Johnson later became in-house counsel to Fox Cable Networks in Los Angeles, drafting and negotiating deals for Fox Sports Net (“FSN”) and Fox College Sports.

Laughter as a sign of originality

His bio page also lists his two blogs, Pixelixation, on intellectual property and entertainment law, and Backbencher. One is tempted not to mention the latter since it may create an impression of the professor as not serious enough to tackle the enormous substance of the gigantic issue he is dealing with in his paper, which many potential readers may then dismiss out of hand.

In fact, we have to admit that some of his posts on the Backbencher: The Hard Hitting Global Solutions You Demand!”are downright, shall we say, lighthearted. But then, as we have noted ever since knowing Peter Medawar, Jim Watson and Professor Peter Duesberg at Berkeley, a sense of humor is a sign of superior wit in more than one sense, even if the humor is a little childish at times – another mark of genius, as it happens, since playfulness is close both to children and godliness when it comes to originality.

Back in 1999, at the end of “the Nineties,” I wondered what the new decade, the first decade of the Third Millennium, would be called.

Would people refer to it as “the Aughts,” “the Noughts,” or “the Zeros”? Or would it be something utterly unique? To mark the fact that all years of this decade had two 0’s in the middle, and paying homage to Y2K anxieties and millennial armaggedon fears, I thought it would have been fun to call this decade “the Oh Oh’s.”

But what did we end up calling this decade? What name eventually stuck?


The only person I have heard refer aloud to this decade by any name was me. I tried “the Aughts.” In case you noticed, it didn’t catch on.

The entire English speaking world wussed out. And that includes you, dear reader. The media, however, has been the worst. Now, as television and radio embark on their ritualistic decennial orgy of best-of-worst-of lists and overhashed clips, the feckless cowards in the media persistently and pusillanimously refer to this decade by no name other than “this decade.”

Not sure why this excellent author overlooked the obvious solution of calling the decade the “two thousands”, so we have commented there as follows:

Why not the “two thousands”? Is this too difficult for those with a tendency to lisp? How you can have overlooked this option is hard to fathom, professor, unless there is some reason for it. After all, your exemplary treatise on the CERN “Black Hole” issue is 98 pages of excellent prose, with some brilliant aphorisms at several points. How come such a language expert and fine writer can have overlooked such an obvious solution as “the two thousands”?

Given your writing talent, hope you don’t mind us mentioning that “media” is plural.

All this is in a very light vein, of course. But then, this is because Johnson has a lighthearted side, and has even been a stand up comic.

Outside of his legal career, Professor Johnson was a top-40 radio disc jockey, a stand-up comic, and a consultant at an early-stage internet start-up. In 2005, he was awarded a patent on a headrest he invented for patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

Clearly, this law professor is not only a good analytical mind but also an inventive and original one, a paid up member of the elite club of better minds who think free of the chains of conformity and acquiescence to authority, social or ideological, that shackle most of us. Others that come to mind in a scientific context might be Richard Feynman, Peter Duesberg, or indeed any of the names listed at the top of this blog.

Such men often make their mark most impressively when they rethink the difficulties caused by large groups of lesser minds, even in fields other than their own. Johnson seems to have achieved exactly that in tackling the vexed issue of how the public and its agents should approach the unique problem posed by CERN, where a large pack of scientists with narrow expertise are accelerating to full speed ahead a large machine that some respectable theorists fear may have the power to demolish all we know, rather than simply expand our knowledge.

Since this post is already too long we will return to the main topic and pick out a few plums from Johnson’s masterwork in the next post.

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