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Overbye’s piece on the lawsuit against LHC March 29, 2008

Posted by dorigo in humor, news, physics, politics, science.

I receive and gladly paste here, given the interest this topic has aroused (and as some sort of reward, given the fact that it is comment number 100 to the post where it appeared):

The New York Times
Saturday 29 March 2008

Asking a Judge to Save the World, and Maybe a Whole Lot More

by Dennis Overbye

More fighting in Iraq. Somalia in chaos. People in this country can’t afford their mortgages and in some places now they can’t even afford rice.

None of this nor the rest of the grimness on the front page today will matter a bit, though, if two men pursuing a lawsuit in federal court in Hawaii turn out to be right. They think a giant particle accelerator that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva this summer might produce a black hole or something else that will spell the end of the Earth — and maybe the universe.

Scientists say that is very unlikely — though they have done some checking just to make sure.

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.

Although it sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.

The lawsuit, filed March 21 in Federal District Court, in Honolulu, seeks 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.

According to a spokesman for the Justice Department, which is representing the Department of Energy, a scheduling meeting has been set for June 16.

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.

“There is nothing new to suggest that the L.H.C. is unsafe,” he said, adding that its safety had been confirmed by two reports, with a third on the way, and would be the subject of a discussion during an open house at the lab on April 6.

“Scientifically, we’re not hiding away,” he said.

But Mr. Wagner is not mollified. “They’ve got a lot of propaganda saying it’s safe,” he said in an interview, “but basically it’s propaganda.”

In an e-mail message, Mr. Wagner called the CERN safety review “fundamentally flawed” and said it had been initiated too late. The review process violates the European Commission’s standards for adhering to the “Precautionary Principle,” he wrote, “and has not been done by ‘arms length’ scientists.”

Physicists in and out of CERN say a variety of studies, including an official CERN report in 2003, have concluded there is no problem. But just to be sure, last year the anonymous Safety Assessment Group was set up to do the review again.

“The possibility that a black hole eats up the Earth is too serious a threat to leave it as a matter of argument among crackpots,” said Michelangelo Mangano, a CERN theorist who said he was part of the group. The others prefer to remain anonymous, Mr. Mangano said, for various reasons. Their report was due in January.

This is not the first time around for Mr. Wagner. He filed similar suits in 1999 and 2000 to prevent the Brookhaven National Laboratory from operating the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. That suit was dismissed in 2001. The collider, which smashes together gold ions in the hopes of creating what is called a “quark-gluon plasma,” has been operating without incident since 2000.

Mr. Wagner, who lives on the Big Island of Hawaii, studied physics and did cosmic ray research at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a doctorate in law from what is now known as the University of Northern California in Sacramento. He subsequently worked as a radiation safety officer for the Veterans Administration.

Mr. Sancho, who describes himself as an author and researcher on time theory, lives in Spain, probably in Barcelona, Mr. Wagner said.

Doomsday fears have a long, if not distinguished, pedigree in the history of physics. At Los Alamos before the first nuclear bomb was tested, Emil Konopinski was given the job of calculating whether or not the explosion would set the atmosphere on fire.

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.”

I met Mangano in Perugia at the end of January, and we indeed discussed the issue of black holes at the LHC in that occasion. I only remember Michelangelo mentioning that some evidence against the danger of LHC creating harmful effects came from the existence of neutron stars. I however respect his wish to wait for a review of his report…


1. Euclidistheway - March 29, 2008

Absolute Nonsense. People behaving badly, again. I don’t see black hole production occuring until the energies approach the GUT energy of 1.64 x 10^16 GeV. Even then I am skeptical that black hole production could occur in an accelerator as virtual black hole production could lead to cooling effects. A result would be the momenta push against a wall of s-matrix radiation disrupting any black hole formation. The only way to engineer a black hole would be to clump matter together the old fashion way. Oh, I calculate a probability of 10^-32 of BH production in LHC. So I can’t say absolutely no BH production. We are safe.

2. Phil Warnell - March 29, 2008

Hi Tommaso,

The world is flat and you’ll fall off, travelling faster then sound will be fatal, no one has actually landed on the moon, big foot lives in my back yard……………………..I have to tell you none of this surprises me. There have been Chicken Littles and Doubting Thomas’ since long before the fairy tales. Fear of the unknown coupled with and mitigated by not caring to is of course the root cause. It is an old clique that the future belongs to the brave. The truth is however, the future belongs to the rationally confident, interested and informed. It would serve them right if we let them have their wish and leave them behind. Of course we cannot as many are out friends and relatives:-)



3. Guess Who - March 29, 2008

Ahem, copyrights? Better just link to the story, I think:


4. dorigo - March 29, 2008

Hi GW; it is linked (title of the article)… I reported it fully originally, but then found out that the piece was accessible online and linked it…


Euclid, I take your post with a sense of humor, but please do not abuse of concepts that do have a scientific meaning without explaining them… “a probability of 10^-32”, what does that mean ? In a collision, in a second, in a year. We should refrain from talking loosely using these concepts, or we cannot really frown when science abusers do it.

Hi Phil, I salute the existence of illuminists. However, the question is meaningful, albeit suing in a district of Hawaii sounds really a bit un-serious. We’ll see how that goes.


5. Phil Warnell - March 29, 2008

Hi Tommaso,

Just so I’m not left out in propagating hysteria, I have a hypothesis. Dark matter is actually the residue of all the previous civilizations that turned on their LHC (s). There you go, two mysteries solved with one hypothesis. Perhaps I should approach some special interest group to see if I might get a grant to follow it up? 🙂



6. Louise - March 30, 2008

Just as humans once feared forest creatures, there is a lot of prejudice about Black Holes. Even scientists share the same silly misconceptions about being sucked up.

A typical Primordial Black Hole has a mass of about 10^11 kg. Since this is more than the mass of LHC, one theoretically produced there would be even smaller. If you were only one meter away from this PBH, the gravitational tug would be only 2/3 what you feel from Earth.

Suppose you were suicidal, reached out and touched the PBH. The first gram of your fingertip would be turned into about 10^13 joules of radiation, the yield of a small nuclear warhead.

The rest of you would be blown into the next county, easily exceeding the Black Hole’s tiny escape velocity. You would not be sucked into the Black Hole even if you wanted to be!

Unless you believe in extra dimensions, LHC is not powerful enough to produce a stable Black Hole. If by chance one were produced, it would evaporate almost immediately. I hope this makes everyone sleep better at night.

7. Lubos Motl - March 30, 2008

Wow, even Louise knows more about the BH production rates than Luis Sancho. That could make Wagner’s and Sancho’s struggle a bit quixotic. But I wouldn’t be so sure.

Recently I’ve seen a few pieces by Michelangelo in the Louvre.

8. dorigo - March 30, 2008

Please go ahead Phil, getting funded and doing science are two very different things nowadays.

Hi Louise, thank you for the nice explanation. Yes, black holes are not so terrible after all…

Lubos, was it your new book which caused you to travel to Paris ? I have to say, the subject of your work is a cunning intuition. How are sales going ?

Cheers all,

9. Phil Warnell - March 30, 2008

Hi Tommaso,

“Please go ahead Phil, getting funded and doing science are two very different things nowadays.”

Despite how I might or others take the above, we agree. I simply find it disturbing that the SSC project was at first delayed and then totally scrapped after more then a third the required investment spent principally because politicians halted it as it to being not worthwhile. Now we have the LHC, just weeks away from being a reality, to perhaps also be delayed in it’s startup and schedule mainly due to the concerns of one contended by many as a poorly qualified scientist and the perceived hesitance of one other scientist recognized by many as to be qualified. Also, I am the first to admit I am not among your peers, yet I would contend I am more aware of the agenda, tactics, and motives of those I’m certain to be behind all this. They are of course the ones that hold humanity back from perhaps evolving to achieve our potential for reasons I already stated. For them or for those that are unwittingly dubbed to further their program, I wish them no success or recognize any validity in irrational fear.



10. Euclidistheway - March 31, 2008

I thought of leaving well enough alone but as an ardent science abuser I think I will explain my comment in the thread above in reference to your remark. In a sense I thought that it goes without saying that the LHC is powered up for very brief collision runs (or will be,correct me I may be wrong) and that only so many will occur in a yearly time period. I threw in a number 10^-32 and yes I did not tag it with any dimensionality that may give an uninformed reader an idea as to what it referred to(my mistake). But its a very small number nonetheless and regardless whether I meant one event or collision or whether the machine runs a collision every second for a year hardly still matters. It is a very very small probability. Actually I meant it as it refers to the potential total energy produced in the collision. There is a simple and naive way to calculate the probability of BH production and that is to treat the collision energy as if it describes a particle (I did say naive) in a QFT and divide its compton length by its gravitational length. It’s that simple, assuming just 4 dimensions and no infinite warped dimensions or whatever.. It does not even matter if you include multiple jets as different events in the probability space. The probability distribution always goes to unity as the momentum space approaches the Planck energy (as the compton length is the same as the gravitational length at Planck energy) but then again we are talking about the LHC which goes in the direction of Planck (but far removed from) will only reach 14 TeV c.o.m collision. If someone has a better way of calculating BH production let them chime in. I am sorry that I am contributing noise to your blog and I wish you and your blog the best.
Mark A. Thomas (Euclidistheway)

11. dorigo - March 31, 2008

Hi Phil,

indeed, my comment was not sarcastic. The fact is that what is funded is not always scientific, and that good proposal often get sacked. Politics has a big weight in all the decisions concerning what science we are allowed to do, unfortunately.


12. dorigo - March 31, 2008

Hi Euclid,

yes you did say naive😉 I appreciate handwaving arguments when they shed light on the matter, but I am left in the dark trying to understand your argument above… Anyway I am not the only reader here so you need not worry about educating me to your peculiar way of computing cross sections – others may understand it better than I do. I acknowledge that your prediction is that we will not be eaten up by LHC collisions – a bet you will be most likely to have to cash rather than pay.


13. Ed - April 2, 2008

Just where is this “time theory” research being conducted? Probably in Mr Sancho’s wine cellar.

14. Stef - April 7, 2008

Louise wrote: “If by chance one were produced, it would evaporate almost immediately.”

It is exactly this type of statements that rubbish each and every other argument on the safety of the LHC. It is exactly this religious belief in theories that have never ever been proved about things that have never ever been observed that make me worry about the whole LHC affair.
“If by chance one were produced, it would evaporate almost immediately.” as if you, your family and Stephen Hawking have been cooking Black Holes in your kitchen for generations and know exactly how they taste when you put too much salt. Geez.

15. dorigo - April 7, 2008

Dear Stef,

you have to understand that we are considering an exceedingly improbable situation here: we have to

1) assume that there exist large extra dimensions
2) assume that the scale of quantum gravity is at LHC reach
3) assume that the quite solid predictions of Hawking radiation are bogus;
4) assume that for some unknown reason the rapidity distribution of black hole production is extremely weird (otherwise they would have enough energy to escape the earth’s gravitational field).

It would be too silly to attach numbers to such a ridiculous streak of assumptions. I would rather say I find more probable that proton-proton collisions at LHC create mutated bacteria that kill all human beings (I think this idea comes from Bee; another idea I heard is the creation of dragons that eat us all, but I find bacteria mutation quite more likely). In any case, there are better things to worry about.

Please understand that scientists do not usually shrug shoulders. Most of us are believers, in fact, and not skeptics! But despite the fact that we have not spent our life cooking black holes in our kitchens, we have nonetheless a pretty good idea of what termodynamics and general relativity are. If you feel disturbed by what can appear a thoughtless remark, you must realize it comes by people who are nauseated by cransk whose job is speculating on science for personal profit.


16. Stef - April 7, 2008

Dorigo, thanks for your reply.

You see, the statement about evaporating black holes is one that has been disturbing me since I found out about the LHC safety debate.

Even CERN in their own webpage quotes “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.” http://public.web.cern.ch/PUBLIC/en/LHC/Safety-en.html

It remains that communication by the scientific community to the uninitiated public has been (and still is) shambolic.
Not communicating on issues as important as this is not an option, however bad communication creates the situation that we are experiencing now.

If you want to blame someone you can do much better than looking at Wagner and Sancho by focussing your attention to articles like this one: http://www.unisci.com/stories/20014/1001012.htm

How can any (non physicist) normal human being read the unisci article and not worry?
Ah, but it’s OK, Stephen Hawking has a theory that small black holes will evaporate very quickly. Phew. We’re safe now.

And what is it then? Can the LHC create black holes or can it not? You and many others seem to think it is (extremely) improbable, as many others seem to think that it is desirable and the collider has been built with this (too) in mind.

Who am I (average non-physicist individual) supposed to believe?

I am under the impression that at times the scientific community is asking us to have faith in their superior knowledge.


I heard that word before.

17. dorigo - April 8, 2008

Hi Stef,

the LHC was not built to produce black holes. Indeed, it is a speculation which appeared long after the machine was funded and its construction started. It stems from the theory of large extra dimensions, which was born as a speculation by Nima Arkani-Hamed and Gia Dvali in 1998, and acquired momentum later thanks to the fact that it predicts observable signatures -most of which are NOT black hole production at colliders, but rather monojet events and other less exotic processes.

You are supposed to believe physicists, and not cranks. The gentlemen who filed a certain lawsuit (you know which one, but I will not say it here, since they have shown to be reading blogs and threaten to sue whomever damages their reputation) are not scientists as far as I understand.

Of course you can choose to rather believe in speculations. But Hawking radiation, you see, is not a speculation in the sense that large extra dimensions with a TeV quantum gravity scale is. Because the former is a necessary consequence of thermodynamics, quantum physics and general relativity, the latter is a fancy construct that has an exceedingly slight chance of being correct (LEDs) combined with a extremely improbable and fine-tuned constant made such that it creates a problem. Why not a 100 GeV quantum gravity scale then ? Because it would not make much sense AND it would have been detected already.

Scientists are not good communicators. On this you certainly have a point. I do my little bit here to change that. But you – the audience – must do you share of the homework, and understand the difference between a rational argument and a wild speculation.


18. Stef - April 8, 2008


Ti ringrazio per le tue risposte.
I truly appreciate you taking the time to explain in relatively simple terms.
It is difficult for someone with a humanities background to do his “share of the homework”, however what seems clear to me now is that wild speculations and sensationalistic communication can be found on both sides of the fence.
It depends who you ask.

Ciao, Stefano

19. Ty Harris - April 9, 2008

First of all, let me just say that I do totally support CERN and it’s research, and certainly I agree there are crackpots out there who commonly see dangers where none exist. BUT it has also rightly been said that ” even paranoids have enemies”, and “even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and them”. People can- of course- make educated guesses about what will PROBABLY happen when we create conditions on our planet that haven’t existed since the big bang, and I am sure that it’s very PROBABLE that the LHC poses no danger- BUT….

Aren’t we truly doing something here which HASN’t BEEN DONE BEFORE in search of a better understanding of things which we DO NOT FULLY UNDERSTAND? Isn’t there a long history of finding things in such experiments which we did not expect, and of learning things in the process of such experiments which proved things to be true that we did not predict to BE true? Aren’t we actually messing around with the fundamental forces of the universe here with no clear idea of the potential consequences of doing that? I mean, people may say Yeah or Nay on black holes and their stability or non-stability. It’s all very interesting conjecture, but who the hell really KNOWS how it will turn out in reality? Hawking has been wrong on black holes before- by his own admission. How can we know in advance what is going to happen? Maybe- just maybe- we should think this through a bit more ?

Again, I support CERN, and I dont’ EXPECT them to blow up the Earth, but at the same time, the Fermi Paradox is like a nagging doubt in the back of my mind… Maybe the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that the technological thresh-hold required to do these types of potentially self-anihlllating experiments is the common pre-cursor to an advanced civilization’s ability to establish a permanent presence in space. Maybe advanced life in the universe destroys ITSELF on a regular basis. The deafening silence out there almost IMPLIES that SOMETHING bad happens to complex Life- if it does exist out there- right at about our current level of technology. As much as I support basic research, I just wish we knew a little bit more about the ground upon which we are about to tread as a species.

20. J. Paul Boardman - July 23, 2008

After spending 8 BILLION dollars do you really think that CERN will do anything to stop this project? To just drop everything and say “uh yah people we just found out that this aint a very good idea….
What a worries me is that money will make any human make bad decisions, especially when countries of “super power” are backing up the project. Take the testing of nuclear bombs the Americans were doing in the past. Look at some of the old pictures where you see guys with “special” glasses on…Obviously they really didn’t know or bluntly didn’t care about the effects of this horrific invention.

I love the idea of the LHC but yes it does scare me a bit. I am not worried about dragons popping out as our cocky friend wrote. I am worried about the unknown and the funding problems that are now speeding up the project. We look at our History and learn that many times in science we have learned from our mistake. Is this going to be the final mistake that will end our planet and destroy humanity?

21. J. Paul Boardman - July 23, 2008

Oh and a little reminder for all those that enjoy mocking these two guys….

The planet was flat…exactly? thats actually a very good example Phil Warnell! Back then people were told that the planet was flat, untill someone decided to find out. It could of went either way which tells you what?

Another…The Titanic, what did ‘THEY’ call it. The unsinkable Ship, Full speed ahead Captain… Ya think if some “bozo” from Honolulu decided to argue people would have listened, hell no.

Enron…Everybody is buying shares everybody is doing it…ALL IN!!!…

Do you see where im going with this. It is not because just a FEW are saying things that are argumentive, automatically they are wrong. It is not because EVERYONE is saying it that it is RIGHT…This is why wars are started because people do not open there minds to ALL arguments. LHC COULD GO WRONG it is NOT 100% safe and YOU nor CERN can back that up… Black hole i don’t know, lets look into it with people that are not HIRED by an allready 8billion dollar spent project. What do you think?

As for Big Foot well thats a joke but then again the fact is, is that nothing is impossible due to the simple reality of the unkown. Go back 400 hundred years, do you think people thought we would be flying arround in Jets and living with “the” Indians…Besides Big Foot would change nothing in my life, playing arround with science COULD.

Now lets go hang a key at the end of a kite and wait for a thunder storm😉

22. Zephir - August 24, 2008

The contemporary models of dense matter instabilities are neglecting the surface tension phenomena, which keeps the unstable phase more stable. For example, the neutron itself is unstable as such, but when exposed a large gravitational pressure at the core of neutron stars, it remains stable. But such stabilization requires a large amount of neutron matter, so its improbable in LHC scale. Is here some other mechanism, which can stabilize it?

My answer is YES! and it was completely ignored in contemporary models. As we know, the pressure inside of tiny water droplets of micrometer size is similar to hydrostatic pressure in 150 meter depth because of their surface tension. It seems, that observed evidence of stable tetra and pentaneutronium states is supporting this hypothesis. You can imagine the consequences at the case of more dense quark matter for yourself.

In addition, existing safety analysis considers generally low crossection of black hole interaction with terrestrial matter considering, every black hole will evaporate first, then it can swallow a sufficient amount of matter. Here we are neglecting the fact, the black hole or strangellet produced can exhibit a strong charge and or magnetic moment, i.e. it will attract and interact with surrounding matter a much faster, then every safety analysis has every considered (compare the Dr. Otto Rossler’s web for further details. http://www.lhcfacts.org/ )

23. dorigo - August 25, 2008

Hi Zephir,

don’t forget that even two protons and another neutron are sufficient to make a neutron stable. No need to involve neutron stars…


24. pavel - September 14, 2008

If CERN scientists know that what they are doing is safety it means they know the expected results.
If they know the results of their experiment why they are spending billions of dollars on it?
The truth is they have no idea about what it will happened inside of collider this time.
They even can not be coherent in the immediate and later application of what they can find.
And after all any powerful invention fell in the hands of army and it was used as a weapon first.
Some scientist didn’t learn anything from recent history and they may be proved to have knowledge but not logic.

25. dorigo - September 16, 2008

Pavel, I am afraid it’s not the CERN scientists. Much rather you have no idea. No idea of what you are talking about.


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