Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
7/4

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

3 posts in this topic

March 29, 2008

Asking a Judge to Save the World,

and Maybe a Whole Lot More

By DENNIS OVERBYE, NY Times

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 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.”

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

April 15, 2008

Essay

Gauging a Collider’s Odds of Creating a Black Hole

By DENNIS OVERBYE

In Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins,” the protagonist, a doctor and an inventor, recites what he calls the scientist’s prayer. It goes like this:

“Lord, grant that my work increase knowledge and help other men.

“Failing that, Lord, grant that it will not lead to man’s destruction.

“Failing that, Lord, grant that my article in Brain be published before the destruction takes place.”

Today we require more than prayers that a scientific experiment will not lead to the end of the world. We demand hard-headed calculations. But whom can we trust to do them?

That question has been raised by the impending startup of the Large Hadron Collider. It starts smashing protons together this summer at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or Cern, outside Geneva, in hopes of grabbing a piece of the primordial fire, forces and particles that may have existed a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

Critics have contended that the machine could produce a black hole that could eat the Earth or something equally catastrophic.

To most physicists, this fear is more science fiction than science fact. At a recent open house weekend, 73,000 visitors, without pitchforks or torches, toured the collider without incident.

Nevertheless, some experts say too much hype and not enough candor on the part of scientists about the promises and perils of what they do could boomerang into a public relations disaster for science, opening the door for charlatans and demagogues.

In a paper published in 2000 with the title “Might a Laboratory Experiment Destroy Planet Earth?” Francesco Calogero, a nuclear physicist at the University of Rome and co-winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Pugwash conferences on arms control, deplored a tendency among his colleagues to promulgate a “leave it to the experts” attitude.

“Many, indeed most, of them,” he wrote, “seem to me to be more concerned with the public relations impact of what they, or others, say and write, than in making sure that the facts are presented with complete scientific objectivity.”

One problem is that society has never agreed on a standard of what is safe in these surreal realms when the odds of disaster might be tiny but the stakes are cosmically high. In such situations, probability estimates are often no more than “informed betting odds,” said Martin Rees, a Cambridge University cosmologist, the astronomer royal and the author of “Our Final Hour.” Adrian Kent, also of Cambridge, said in a paper in 2003 reviewing scientists’ failure to calculate adequately and characterize accurately risks to the public, that even the most basic question, “ ‘How improbable does a catastrophe have to be to justify proceeding with an experiment?’ seems never to have been seriously examined.”

Dr. Calogero commented, as did Dr. Kent, in 2000 after a very public battle on the safety of another accelerator, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or Rhic, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Dr. Calogero said he hoped to apply a gentle pressure on Cern to treat these issues with seriousness. “A crusade against it is a danger,” he said of the new collider. “It would not be based on rational argument.”

Fears about the Brookhaven collider first centered on black holes but soon shifted to the danger posed by weird hypothetical particles, strangelets, that critics said could transform the Earth almost instantly into a dead, dense lump. Ultimately, independent studies by two groups of physicists calculated that the chances of this catastrophe were negligible, based on astronomical evidence and assumptions about the physics of the strangelets. One report put the odds of a strangelet disaster at less than one in 50 million, less than a chance of winning some lottery jackpots. Dr. Kent, in a 2003 paper, used the standard insurance company method to calculate expected losses to explore how stringent this bound on danger was. He multiplied the disaster probability times the cost, in this case the loss of the global population, six billion. A result was that, in actuarial terms, the Rhic collider could kill up to 120 people in a decade of operation.

“Put this way, the bound seems far from adequately reassuring,” Dr. Kent wrote.

Alvaro de Rujula of Cern, who was involved in writing a safety report, said extending the insurance formula that way violated common sense. “Applied to all imaginable catastrophes, it would result in World Paralysis,” he wrote.

Besides, the random nature of quantum physics means that there is always a minuscule, but nonzero, chance of anything occurring, including that the new collider could spit out man-eating dragons.

Doomsday from particle physics is part of the culture.

Next year will see the release of the film version of “Angels and Demons,” the prequel to Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code,” in which the bad guys use a Cern accelerator to gather antimatter for a bomb to blow up the Vatican, and it includes scenes at Cern.

In Douglas Preston’s “Blasphemy,” a best seller last winter, the operators of a giant particle collider in New Mexico find themselves talking to an entity that sounds like God before religious fanatics descend on the lab and destroy it.

Some physicists, who have been waiting 14 years for the new collider, have proclaimed in papers and press releases increasingly ambitious and unlikely hopes, including proving a long-shot version of string theory by producing microscopic black holes.

Inevitably, these black holes have taken center stage in the latest round of doomsday alarms. Most theorists will say the version of their theory that predicts black holes is extremely unlikely — though not impossible. But the chance that such a black hole would not instantly evaporate according to a theory famously propounded by Stephen Hawking in 1974 is even more weirdly unlikely, the theorists say.

Cern’s most recent safety report, in 2003, focused mostly on refuting the strangelet threat in the hadron collider and devoted just three pages to black holes, saying they “do not present a conceivable risk.” It gave no odds. An anonymous Cern committee is working on a final, more comprehensive report.

Neither Dr. Calogero nor Dr. Rees say they are losing sleep over the collider. Some risk is acceptable, even inevitable, in the pursuit of knowledge, they say, and they trust the physicists who have built it.

But it would be more reassuring in the long run, as Dr. Kent noted, if everybody agreed beforehand how much risk is acceptable, before spending billions of dollars and major political capital.

One popular option to determine acceptable risk is to demand that the chance of a man-made disaster be kept below the chance of a natural disaster like being obliterated by an asteroid. Astronomers estimate that chance as one in 50 million in any given year.

Of course, thanks to those pesky quantum laws, disaster could come anytime. Or not. It could happen that the scientist’s prayer will be answered and your discovery will indeed lead to knowledge, human happiness and a new killer ap for iPhones.

“As in all explorations of uncharted domains, there may be a risk,” Dr. Rees wrote, “but there is a hidden cost of saying no.”

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The black hole thing is a little silly, but one very serious issue with these experiments is the amount of energy consumed. These facilities consume an amount of energy on par with a good sized town, and because the physical phenomena observed at these energy levels is vasty (mind-bendingly) different from what is observed at "normal" energy levels, there is very little prospect for high-energy physics to accomplish anything more than satisfying the curiosity of a few nerds like me. Don't get me wrong, I think that it is incredibly important that human curiorisity be encouraged and pursued. However, at some point you have to evaluate the costs, financial and environmental, of certain lines of research.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.