Dazzling engineering switched on, running fine and will risk all after Christmas
Critics appeal to UN to stop boffins playing with nuclear fire, but threat disturbs few
CERN escapes oversight, shielded by PR and scientists’ denial
Unrefuted paper by top physicist argues dire possibilities but goes unread
There was renewed excitement for thrill seekers around the world on Friday (Nov 20) as the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, otherwise known as CERN, fired up the Large Hadron Collider, its newly repaired $10 billion research gargantua/Christmas toy/doomsday machine which will explore the origins of the universe. Reports so far are that all is working smoothly in the LHC as proton beams whiz around its spectacular 17 mile racing circuit 330 feet under Switzerland and France in opposite directions, ready to crash into each other and reveal what happened the instant after the universe began.
A large part of the frisson of nervous pleasure generated by the biggest machine the world has ever seen derives, for some, from the thought that two thousand physicists are now playing with almost Godlike powers at recreating the way things were when galaxies didn’t yet exist. Respectable theorists have shown there is a not necessarily small chance that an inadvertent result may be the swift disappearance of the entire planet and possibly the sun as well into a small black hole, or if that is not our fate, the gigantic, gleaming, colorful contraption may spew forth sufficient “strangelets” to turn the world into an smoking asteroid of “strange matter” the size of a football field.
Supreme confidence in the unknown
Most people dismiss such notions as the scientific equivalent of “a dragon suddenly appearing in this room,” as a superconfident Brian Greene put it to us recently. The renowned string theorist and best selling author appeared at Philoctetes last weekend to discuss Mathematics and Beauty, and we took the opportunity to ask him where he stood on this neglected issue. His Op Ed contribution to the New York Times a year ago, The Origins of the Universe: A Crash Course, was unreservedly gung ho on going ahead with the LHC (Large Hadron Collider, hadrons being certain subatomic composite particles including protons and neutrons which combine quarks and antiquarks) to maximum power, but has been outdated, after all, by CERN’s safety report admitting that the chief reassurance he used, the familiar “we live with cosmic rays hitting the earth every day and remain unscathed” argument, was null and void.
Green wrote in the Times (Op. Ed. on the interesting date of September 11 2008):
Work that made Stephen Hawking famous establishes that tiny black holes would disintegrate in a minuscule fraction of a second, long enough for physicists to reap the benefits of having produced them, but short enough to avoid their wreacking any havoc.
Even so, some have worried further that maybe Dr. Hawking was wrong and such black holes don’t disintegrate. Are we willing to bet the fate of the planet on an untested insight? And that question takes us to the crux of the matter: the collisions at the Large Hadron Collider have never before occurred under laboratory settings, but they’ve been taking place throughout the universe — even here on earth — for billions of years.
Cosmic rays — particles wafting through space — constantly rain down on the earth, the other planets and the wealth of stars scattered throughout the galaxy, with energies far in excess of those attainable by the Large Hadron Collider. And since these more powerful collisions haven’t resulted in astrophysical calamities, the collider’s comparatively tame collisions most assuredly won’t either.
But the LHC safety report to the public from CERN (see summary page) now admits that micro black holes (mBHs) produced by the massive collider could stay on Earth (7th para.). Since the proton beams will crash into each other in opposing directions, anything they yield could move slowly, like the fragments produced by two cars in a head on collision:
“Those (mBHs) produced by cosmic rays would pass harmlessly through the Earth into space, whereas those produced by the LHC could remain on Earth.”
Greene’s reply to us at Philoctetes, which we will detail in a future post, was the above dragon concept, the cosmic ray argument part II (equally flawed, some argue) and that anyway it “isn’t my field.” Given that no reputable physicists are writing papers saying a dragon may appear, the analogy seemed doubtful. Also, this statement seemed overlook the fact that the Columbia University department Greene belongs to has a project at the LHC, and funnels money and expertise to it, not to mention that his Op Ed piece remains the most prominent personal reassurance in the States that we don’t have anything to worry about. But Greene hurried away to an ice cream shop afterwards avoiding further questions.
“The current issue has all the earmarks of something that needs outside review – possibly fatal global consequences, a safety report entirely produced by CERN scientists, the typical schoolboy attitude of physicists satisfying their curiosity, great public expense, the commitment of large organizations to evading public scrutiny, the tendency of huge projects to become unstoppable juggernauts, and so on.”
We also attended the triumphant double presentation on “Hubble Trouble” at NYU recently, where Gregory Gabadadze and David Hogg, two top young physicist/astronomers there, described the latest results on black holes, white dwarves and other components of the universe beyond human sensory experience. Afterwards we asked both about CERN, receiving extensive replies (which we will convey in more detail later) full of boisterous confidence even after both graciously acknowledged that the cosmic ray argument constantly waved at doubters was invalid.
A black hole of possibility
But, as the Fermilab director Pier Oddone told Dennis Overbye of the New York Times a year or more ago (see earlier post), the truth is that “That there are many theories means we don’t have a clue. That’s what makes it so exciting. ” In other words, no one really knows what will happen as the drain on the Geneva power grid rises up to ten per cent of the total and the beam energy surpasses the current 0.9 teravolts (1 TeV = 10_12 electronvolts) operation record held by the Tevatron at Fermilab at Batavia near Chicago heading to levels never before explored (seven teravolts) to reproduce the conditions of the universe a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.
This is still the case. Nothing has changed since Fabiola Gianotti, a Cern physicist and the deputy spokeswoman for the team that built Atlas told Overbye in 2007, “Either we find the Higgs boson, or some stranger phenomenon must happen.”
Finding the “God particle” will complete the Standard Model of particle physics, and the planned production of mini black holes will imply extra dimensions do actually exist and thus will let string theorists off the hook of not yet having any actual physical results yet to show skeptics, but the truth is anything can happen. We have Brian Greene’s word for it in his Op Ed piece, Fermilab Director Pier Oddone has said the same thing, and Brian Cox, author of Why does E=Mc2, who might be said to be Britain’s version of Brian Greene, admits as much even while cheerfully if rather crudely dismissing fears of a black hole lunching on the planet as “a steaming pile of bollocks” on the Colbert Report a month ago.
Here is Brian Greene last year:
But the most exciting prospect of all is that the experiments will reveal something completely unanticipated, something that forces us to rethink our most cherished explanations.
Confirming an idea is always gratifying. But finding what you don’t expect opens new vistas on the nature of reality. And that’s what humans, including those of us who happen to be physicists, live for.
Rainer Plaga fires across CERN’s bows
Behind all the ridicule, however, there are some serious theoretical papers. One respectable theorist of disaster is physicist Rainer Plaga, previously a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich. He is now being being ignored by CERN and the media, but he has shown that CERN safety theorists managed to reject his argument last year only by picking on the wrong equation, and they have not come up with anything better since that embarrassment, despite promises.
Plaga has refined his initial paper, On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders, Version 1 through a second version, Version 2 (abstract), click this for full Version 2 pdf, in which he appended an explanation of how the attempted CERN rebuttal had confused his paper’s equations, into a third edition, of which this is the abstract at the physics site arXiv, On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders Version 3 (Abstract):
On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders
(Submitted on 10 Aug 2008 (v1), last revised 9 Aug 2009 (this version, v3))
The question of whether collider produced of subnuclear black holes might constitute a catastrophic risk is explored in a model of Casadio & Harms (2002) that treats them as quantum-mechanical objects. A plausible scenario in which these black holes accrete ambient matter at the Eddington limit shortly after their production, thereby emitting Hawking radiation that would be harmful to Earth and/or CERN and its surroundings, is described. Such black holes are shown to remain undetectable in existing astrophysical observations and thus evade a recent exclusion of risks from subnuclear black holes by Giddings & Mangano (2008) and and a similar one by Koch et al. (2009). I further question that these risk analyses are complete for the reason that they exclude plausible black-hole parameter ranges from safety consideration without giving any reason. Some feasible operational measures at colliders are proposed that would allow the lowering of any remaining risk probability.
Giddings & Mangano drew different general conclusions only because they made different initial assumptions about the properties of microscopic black holes, not because any of their technical conclusions are incorrect. A critical comment by Giddings & Mangano (2008) on the present paper and a preprint by Casadio et al.(2009) – that presents a treatment of the present issue with methods and assumptions similar to mine – are addressed in appendices.
This is the paper (full version 3 in pdf form is at Full Rainer Plage Paper Version 3 pdf) that physicists involved in the enterprise at CERN and elsewhere are not bothering to read or are not even aware of, according to our interviewing. Their assumption appears to be that the initial CERN riposte rendered the paper invalid.
In fact, as Plaga makes clear, they foolishly chose the wrong equation to critique, and his polished third edition and its demolition of their assumptions and excessive confidence stands untouched, arguing that the world and all its inhabitants including you and me may well vanish down a black hole or in a third scenario that CERN has not even considered, that there is a distinct possibility that the greatest machine ever built could produce black holes generating an energy level equivalent to an H bomb every second, producing unprecedented global warming, multi continent earthquakes devastating civilization if not all of life, incinerating the 2200 physicists at CERN, Geneva and a large pie slice of France in the bargain.
Physicists joyride = planetary death ride?
Others like Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees (in ten pages on collider risks in Our Final Hour) earlier (they have since retreated), and now prominent physicist Adrian Kent of Cambridge and space engineer and computer scientist Richard Wagner say that it could spew strangelets that will turn the earth into a smoking asteroid the size of a football pitch. Then there is the admittedly somewhat eccentric (he likes to include dirty jokes in his papers) all round wiz theoretical chemist and physicist (and immunology Ph.D) Otto Rossler, and attorney physicist and nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner, who say the world could go slowly down a black hole, which Plaga notes in passing that CERN has not disproved.
In other words, outlandish or not, it can be soberly maintained that the fate of the world is in the hands of physicists and bureaucrats who are acting like a bunch of overgrown schoolboys who are going ahead regardless of high level papers suggesting that dire possibilities are theoretically valid, and not even as extremely unlikely as generally supposed, ranging from tiny through 1 in 6 to 50% or even 100% in some doomsday analyses.
There is no indication in the literature yet that the sophisticated critics are any less correct in their analysis than the CERN scientists, and currently Rainer Plaga has the best of his CERN critics.
Doubts about the gung ho approach have also been voiced by respected physicists such as Adrian Kent of Cambridge. Tony Rothman of Princeton quotes the papers of the highly respected Russian physicist Grigory Vilkovisky in support of caution, and a group of well informed professionals including the theorist Otto Rossler (founder of endophysics, the Rossler attractor in chaos theory and visiting professor in theoretical physics) and the knowledgeable former federal radiation safety official (he studied physics and did cosmic ray research at Berkeley) Walter Wagner (founder of LHCdefense.org who has now appealed to US federal court after his Hawaii suit was ruled out of jurisdiction) appealed to the United Nations last Friday (Nov 20) as the LHC was cranked up.
That 73 page appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee and the Commissioner of Human Rights at the UN by conCERNed international and LHC Kritik (Critique), calls attention to the lack of oversight of CERN actions and asks the UN to intervene and insist on outside review for CERN’s plan to take the planet on a roller coaster thrill ride with no guard rail to prevent a drop into the chasm.
Enclosed are critical studies of the method used in the CERN risk studies, one from members of the “Future of Humanity Institute” of the University of Oxford and a review on the LHC safety assessment process by risk assesment expert and ethicist Dr. Mark Leggett concluding that CERN at this date has fulfilled not more than a fifth of the necessary criteria expected for a modern safety study.
As long as there is no clear evidence that the possible production of “micro black holes” (expected to be created by many CERN scientists) pose neither long- nor short-term danger to life and to planet Earth, CERN and the member states should not aim for their production in high energy experiments at all.
Cynics however do not expect it to result in action fast enough to stop the fuse CERN has lit reaching high explosive. We use that metaphor advisedly since another possibility in the forefront of consideration is that heat radiation as powerful as a 12 megaton H Bomb every second may irradiate Geneva and a sizeable portion of France to a crisp in short order, according to Plaga’s calculations.
Panic over flu but end of world faced with calm fortitude
All in all, concerned citizens must wonder why scientists and their supporters in the media are ridiculing the critics when even the most infinitesmal chance of the biggest setback possible would seem to argue caution.
After all, the media have been happy to help stir up fear over the second coming of swine flu, which has now peaked at about two million cases so far in the US yielding 4000 deaths according to the CDC, compared with 20,000-50,000 for seasonal flu related deaths annually. There were plenty of sensational segments on national network television showing children in hospital dying from “swine flu” to the prayerful horror of their parents at bedside day and night, and 160 million vaccines were being rushed into production, with much popular clamor and even some cheating among people who want them as soon as possible.
Meanwhile excitement over the imagined consequences of the LHC has so far been confined to Hollywood (Angels and Demons), and amusing articles in the Times over whether the future is sending preventive measures:
A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to rescue his grandfather from a traffic accident.
Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, put this idea forward in a series of papers with titles like “Test of Effect From Future in Large Hadron Collider: a Proposal” and “Search for Future Influence From LHC,” posted on the physics Web site arXiv.org in the last year and a half.
Despite all the signs that the physicists in charge have an almost comic inability to handle basic engineering tasks such as insulating the vast creation from lightning strikes and even bird droppings, the PR campaign of behalf of the LHC has effectively shut down public debate this year, and now the LHC has started up again without fanfare.
Captive congregation of $10 billion church
The difference, we imagine, is that CERN scientists are the high priests of a very rich and esoteric church, particle physics, whose texts are completely illegible to most mortals, and whose credibility is absolute with the general public. On the face of it, the idea that they are behaving like NASA sending up the entire world’s population including 1.8 billion innocent children on a spectacular joyride which might explode like the Challenger or vanish as it heads for regions of tiny space and time beyond our ken seems no more credible that the prognostications of Michel de Nostradamus, 1503-66.
That notorious prognosticator did make a prediction that sounds rather ominous in this respect,as it happens. According to our reading of his text he advised everyone to leave Geneva around this time since there was a threat of “counter positive rays” dealing death and destruction to that city. The exact phrase was “Migrés, migrés de Genesve trestous, Saturne d’or en fer se changera, Le contre RAYPOZ (sic) exterminera tous” which, since the three metals named (Saturn means lead, to be collided in the ALICE experiment at CERN late next year, gold and iron) are or have been involved in collision experiments using beams moving counter to each other, offers juicy fodder for prophecy mavens.
The world keeps its nerve
So while the flu false alarm is trumpeted noisily in media world wide, whatever public concern was felt last year, when the LHC was first started up only to fall apart rather ignominiously, has largely dissipated, at least in the media. The whole issue has been successfully painted by the CERN publicity machine as one deserving of fictional treatment only, and Hollywood has been happy to oblige. Thus Angels and Demons offered a fine glimpse of the great 21 Century time and space galleon in its opening segments, and the just premiered 2012 overlooks CERN but has followed up with all kinds of imaginary threats derived from Mayan tablets and climate doomsayers to bring nervous Nellies into disrepute.
“Most of what’s claimed for 2012 relies on wishful thinking, wild pseudoscientific folly, ignorance of astronomy and a level of paranoia worthy of ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ ” Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory, in Los Angeles, and an expert on ancient astronomy, wrote in an article in the November issue of Sky & Telescope.
Even the New York Times’s previously helpful correspondent in this matter, the same Dennis Overbye, has done little this time on the topic other than write a jokey piece, Is Doomsday Coming? Perhaps, but Not in 2012, about speculation in some quarters that all the accidents that have interfered with the progress of the LHC so far – the latest being an a fowl or some other force of nature that shortcircuited its operation last week by dropping pieces of a baguette into its wires, if you can believe it – are visitations from a future than cannot survive if the LHC does rev up to its grand aim of over seven times the record set by the Tevitron (0.98 TeV).
Overbye took the opportunity to swipe at the CERN doubters rather offhandedly in passing: “All of this reminded me of the kinds of letters I received last year about the putative black hole at CERN. That too was more science fiction than science fact”.
The normally sensitive and alert New Yorker doesn’t seem interested, either, although Elizabeth Kolbert in 2007 caught the CERN officials telling the staff to say that the risk of things going wrong should always be said to be zero in answer to any public enquiry.
CERN’s chief scientific officer, Jos Engelen, is from the Netherlands. He serves under the director general, who is from France, and alongside the chief financial officer, who is from Germany. I went to speak to Engelen in his office; behind his desk a chart indicated when the various parts of the collider are supposed to be completed. It was a crazy quilt of multicolored blocks, with lines radiating in all directions. Engelen greeted me with a half-ironic cheerfulness that struck me as very Dutch. Among his responsibilities is dealing with the frequent calls and letters CERN receives about the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world. When I asked about this, Engelen picked up a Bic pen and placed it in front of me.
“In quantum mechanics, there is a probability that this pen will fall through the table,” he said. “All of a sudden, it will be on the floor. Because it can behave as a wave, it can go through; we call that the ‘tunnel effect.’ If you calculate the probability that this happens, it is not identical to zero. It is a very small probability. But it never happens. I’ve never seen it happen. You have never seen it happen. But to the general public you make a casual remark, ‘It is not identical to zero, it is very small,’ and . . . ” He shrugged….
Engelen said that CERN officials are now instructed, with respect to the L.H.C.’s world-destroying potential, “not to say that the probability is very small but that the probability is zero.”
Russian roulette, or caution?
We would probably be in the same camp dismissing CERN anxiety as laughable if it weren’t for the fact that the realm of HIV/AIDS has shown so clearly that the advice of a distinguished scientist who is indubitably right can be swept under the carpet and then flattened by the steam roller of political propaganda and disinformation generated by those in charge of maintaining funding for huge scientific organizations, such as NIAID.
After all, it certainly seems like science fiction to suggest that the future is sending back signals that CERN’s gigantic adventurism is unacceptable, and sabotaging it accordingly. It is also hard to credit that so many responsible experts working in unison on a fabulous machine are prepared to risk their own lives, and the lives of their wives and children, let alone six billion other human beings, simply to find out whether the Higgs boson exists, and create the mini black holes which will support the string theorists in their dreams of glory and a Nobel prize, if there was the slightest chance that the entire globe would reduce to the size of a 2 cm marble and disappear into a black hole the size of a golf ball, as Rossler states.
But the history of internal disputes in science, particularly of the distinguished Duesberg’s fate in the hands of the distinctly lesser folk running AIDS science, tells us not to dismiss lightly members of the elite (such as Plaga or Adrian Kent) who challenge the mainstream.
The current issue has all the earmarks of something that needs outside review – possibly fatal global consequences, a safety report entirely produced by CERN scientists, the typical schoolboy attitude of physicists satisfying their curiosity, great public expense, the commitment of large organizations to evading public scrutiny, the tendency of huge projects to become unstoppable juggernauts, and so on.
That is why we will post further on this ridiculed topic by showing what the literature of the dispute actually conveys, and noting in full what three prominent physicists at NYU and Columbia admitted to us when we talked to them recently.
So far of course the world has emerged unscathed from similar anxious moments, such as start up of the Tevatron which was contested on similar grounds. The detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb was thought to risk the possibility that the atmosphere would catch fire and burn up. The research of Emil Konopinski suggested that it was safe (E. Konopinski, E. J, C. Marvin; Edward Teller (1946, declassified Feb. 1973). Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs. Technical Report Los Alamos National Laboratory LA-602.)
But as noted previously, when we asked Hans Bethe once if there was 100% certainty, he denied it. “We were not completely sure.”
Given that speeding past the limit observed by the Tevatron is scheduled for the world’s biggest experiment before the New Year, the CERN public affairs group will no doubt begin crowing that the danger is over soon after, if nothing worrying seems to happen, but that may be premature.
The scenarios extant include waiting for several years as the black hole sinks to the center of the globe and digests the Earth from the inside out. Only after as long as four to fifty years will the complacent routines of everyday life eventually be disrupted as the surface finally crumbles and we and all our works all fly into a tiny golf ball of inner space.
Here is a preview of what we are in for if the nervous Nellies are right after all, viewed 3.5 million times so far.:
Or you may prefer a more poetic version:
Interesting facts from Hazel Morris about the LHC (It could hold 150,000 fridges full of sausages at a temperature colder than deep outer space etc)