‘Doomsday Machine’ Potentially More Risky than Originally Thought

Physicists recalculate, find chance of sustainable black holes at Swiss supercollider facility

(At the very least, it’s an opportunity to once again showcase my artistic … uh … ability.)

If a tree falls in a forest, but nobody is there to hear it [because the Earth had just been consumed by a man-made and supposedly harmless black hole], can you still hear the slightly-pudgy conservative from Philadelphia say “I told you so?”

This past fall, we watched as the Large Hadron Collider, a device buried far beneath Switzerland and designed to recreate an environment as last seen in the instant following the Big Bang, was being slowed down shortly after being started up preliminarily for reasons and complications far beyond my understanding.

In the weeks and months leading up to the September 10, 2008 power-up day, I had spent a good deal of time trying to raise awareness about the device, citing the ever-so-slight possibility that the LHC could create a planet-swallowing black hole as good reason not to go ahead with the experiments. On September 2, 2008, I wrote the following:

I may be stubborn, and I know I’m ill-informed, but I don’t like this thing.

I fail to see, for instance, the practical benefits of recreating the universe in the moments following its creation, and I lack any confidence whatsoever in the scientists who have designed the machine, as not even they know what it can or will do.

As far as I understand it, one of the goals of the device is to bridge the intellectual gap between theories about the interrelationships between small objects and those between large ones — apparently, the theories which Albert Einstein developed with regard to making rules for particle physics don’t seem to add up when the rules are applied to much larger objects. In order to answer these questions, so puzzling and frustrating to those much smarter than I, scientists plan to recreate the condition of the universe a millisecond after the Big Bang.

This involves the use of ten dimensions, far beyond the three spatial dimensions known to humankind. It involves the creation of miniature black holes and the search for the elusive Higgs’ Boson, a massive particle only predicted to exist and named after the guy–Higgs, I guess–who did not discover the particle, but rather was the first to float the idea that the particle might possibly exist.

Here’s the thing: While I’d rather Iran, for instance, never be permitted to possess working nuclear weapons, I have little problem with them conducting research regarding such weapons systems. The way I look at it, should one of their scientists have a crappy weekend and mess something up, the disastrous consequences will be somewhat localized. I am comforted that the consequences of any short-sightedness or stupidity will be relatively small. I do have a problem, though, with the possible instantaneous GLOBAL consequences of any short-sightedness or stupidity on the part of CERN and its network of brilliant scientists.

Here are people–mere humans–who, while much, much more intelligent than I, admittedly are only postulating–GUESSING, that is– with regard to much of the role, capabilities and potential of the Large Hadron Collider. Here are people who admitted that the chances of it causing a “global catastrophe” are slim. Here are people who, according to one nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner quoted in the New York Times, are more “concerned with public relations impact of what they, or others, say and write, than in making sure that the facts are presented with complete scientific objectivity.”

Here’s more from that April 2008 Times piece:

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.”

That’s scary as hell, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Independent studies, it seems, have placed the chance of a Collider-produced strangelet instantaneously turning the planet into a “dead, dense lump” at perhaps 50 million to one, less than one-half the odds of buying a single, winning Powerball ticket.

If the only thing at stake were, say, the immediate vaporization of the scientists and the facility, I’d give them a hearty “go for it.” However, because the entire planet may or may not be in jeopardy, I’d really like for everyone to be 100 percent certain of the device’s safety, and the odds of a global catastrophe to be absolutely zero.

Think about it — what other experiment, anywhere on Earth and in any field of study, has even a remote possibility of destroying the entire planet?

Some people have dismissed protests of CERN and its Large Hadron Collider as a function of the religious. For me, this has nothing to do with religion. I am a spiritual man, but this is more to do with ego, with negligence, and with potentially dangerous scientific enthusiasm and a “well, they say they’re experts” dismissive attitude gone unchecked in a case when the stakes are far too high.

Scientists are putting the entire planet and its six billion lives at risk so they can search for things which are only thought to exist. At what point does the rest of the world put aside the leave-it-to-the-experts apathy and stand up against unchecked fanaticism in the name of scientific progress? At what point do we leave some questions unanswered? At what point do we question people who are willing to bet everything to confirm a theory about a theory about something which may or may not provide any benefit of consequence?

While it is true that we would not have the Internet had it not been for the efforts of the people at CERN, and while it is true that this machine may very well produce benefits to all of the world’s problems, at this point in time, not even those who laid the groundwork for the Large Hadron Collider know for sure what it will do. What we do know, though, is that there is some risk to the entire planet. I am not anti-progress, but I certainly believe in erring on the side of humanity as we know it when it comes to the cost-benefit tradeoff.

There is so much concern right now as to how carbon emissions or styrofoam cups or oil drilling will slowly harm the Earth over the next 50 or 100 or 1000 years — where’s the same concern for the potentially catastrophic actions of overzealous scientists guided by enthusiasm and conjecture?

At some point, even the brightest minds in the world need to step back, look at those around them, walk outside and interact with the men, women and children of Earth, and decide that some things are better left alone.

Well, Fox News is reporting today that a trio of physicists have reexamined the mathematical aspects of the LHC’s proposed creation of miniature black holes, and have decided that they are NOT, in fact, so sure that the device will not cause a cataclysmic reaction which could destroy the Earth.

Where the scientists at CERN were so positive that the black holes would almost instantaneously disappear–sorry, but even that isn’t good enough for me–the trio of physicists have determined that, in fact, the black holes could stick around for as long as a second, if not longer, and because of those conclusions have expressed worry that other scientists may have underestimated the potential for catastrophe.

This uncertainty was at the heart of my worry and my argument that, for once, we should leave things well enough alone. First, we do not know for certain what benefits, if any, will come from the Large Hadron Collider; second, and far more important, we don’t know for sure that bringing the device to its capacity will be safe for the planet.

Many of you were comfortable with the results and statements put forth by the CERN scientists. I was not, and I hope that these alternative results are enough to show that, gee whiz, perhaps nobody is as certain as they should be given what’s at stake. For once, let’s put ego aside and err on the side of caution, on the side of life. Please. At some point, enough has to be enough. When it comes to the entire planet, even the slightest of risk should outweigh any benefits, determined or indeterminate.

At the very least, before the scientists at CERN attempt to crank up the device this summer, we should send a little note into outer space along with Gene Roddenberry’s ashes. It could be short and sweet:

“P.S. Don’t Build a Large Hadron Collider.”

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Comments

  1. GATOR-1 says:

    I am 100% with ya on this young man. Even with half the odds of winning the Power Ball….do they not realize that people do in fact beat those odds?

    Seems a stupid idea to experiment with something they know really nothing about except that it “could” result in a disater.

    Just what is it they expect to learn? Is whatever it is worth possible destruction of our planet?

    I think not….

  2. Anonymous says:

    Something is coming along that will take 1/3 of the US, 1/3 of the ships and 1/3 of the fish.

    Could be this thing.

    See http://www.the-end.com for the rest of it.

  3. Tigress says:

    This is so bizarre it’s funny. I guess they are not worried about getting in trouble if something goes wrong!

    I’m assuming any resulting black hole would terminate us painlessly and indiscriminately–all of humanity in one fell swoop–so it wouldn’t be ‘that’ bad (it’s hard to take this seriously!), but I have to agree, there is absolutely no benefit to this incredible waste of money and unnecessary risk.

  4. truebeliever says:

    I find it truly amazing the lengths man will go to in order to try to disprove the existence of a creator. The Bible says there are many things we will not understand. The question is, do you trust God? If you do, then it’s not so important that we fill in every blank in science. But man has taken their God-given gift of intelligence and used it in vain to disprove the existence of the one who gave it to them in the first place. Sad.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Kind of what “OBAMA” is trying to do, create a small black hole that will disappear.

  6. gailbullock says:

    Hudini was an expert, too, but he drowned.

    Maybe it will take out Obama’s Stimulus Package (based on benefiting the world instead of the American citizens).

    I wouldn’t want that sucker buried in _my_ back yard!

  7. Anonymous says:

    If another 3 man team found discrepencies in their estimates, how does that “bound” the actual uncertainty in what they predict… my guess is they don’t really know. Just like global warming models there is a lot of guessing going on– intelligent or not.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I agree with you Jeff that if you cannot know all the outcomes and the way all interact it’s crazy to play with fire when we could all get burned. This reminds me of the comment made in the Jurrassic Park movie when Jeff Goldblum said “Just because you can (bring back Dinosaurs)doesn’t mean you should”
    I think this is the reality of that quote in the real world-because if they are WRONG we won’t have to wait for Armageddon!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Enough said by both of you! Was my thoughts exactly! Me thinks scientists get a little overboard at times and have caused some problems for us. Yes, they have done some good things too but they really go to far at times and put all of us at risk, This is one time I’d certainly like them to pass! Good article, Jeff!
    Now, get to those phones and burn up the lines to DC about this bailout nonsense, PLEASE! If you don’t call, they won’t know how upset we are folks! Burn up those lines. They think we’re to dumb to know what is going on. This is PORK! Get to it! PLEASE!

    Thanks, Jeff!
    jmi

  10. Anonymous says:

    I say go for it. We need to be a generation of risk takers if we want to get ahead. No price is too great to achieve the kind of results that will benefit mankind… after all, didn’t the Ecologists say the planet would be better off without people?

  11. Anonymous says:

    I remember reading a book about the Manhatttan project many years ago. While the scientists were eagerly awaiting the first test detonation at Trinity, there was speculation between Oppenheimer and some of his colleagues as to whether or not the detonation would set the atmosphere on fire, thus ending all life. Well, we’re still here aren’t we?

  12. I Beam says:

    Maybe they could relocate it under DC?

  13. gailbullock says:

    Oh, I-Beam! If only they would!

  14. Kris says:

    Scientists’ famous last words:
    “What could it hurt?”

  15. Anonymous says:

    I just don’t understand where they think they have the right to create a black hole. It’s beyond wanting to prove there is no God. It’s wanting to prove that man is God. Wasn’t it enough to stop you when you had mechanical difficulties trying to start it up before? Your arrogance will outlive any benefit to science, if we manage to survive this maniacle suicide attempt. The hypocrisy of it all is that we know, no matter what the outcome, everyone of these scientists, at the end of their lives, will be praying to God with their last fraile human breath.

  16. demablogue says:

    Jeff, love the page, and I agree with you on many things.

    This, however, is not one of them. The fear from the LHC comes from a combination misunderstanding of physics, and the baggage associated with the term “black hole.”

    Black hole basics: Black holes are a collection of mass crunched into a small enough space that “nothing” can escape. This includes matter, and light, hence the black…

    Now, there’s a lot of math involved in this, which I won’t get into, but it’s pretty much like this: For any given mass, there is an “event horizon”(schwarzchild radius, technically) which is the size of space that mass needs to be crammed into to become a black hole.

    for reference: The Shwarzchild radius for a 1kg black hole is ~1.5 x 10^-27 m, or 12 orders of magnitude smaller than radius of the nucleus of an atom

    12 orders of magnitude is such a vast number…it’s literally the difference between 1 dollar and 1 trillion dollars. It’s the difference between having 1 gallon of water, and having the all the water in lake superior 4 times over. It’s almost unimaginably vast.

    Now that we’ve covered that, think of a 1 kg object (roughly 2.2 lbs). Stand by that object and see how long it takes the gravity fom that object to pull you into it. See how long it takes the gravity of that object to pull dust into it…It’s a ludicrously small amount of force.

    Ok, so that’s a 2.2lb object, how heavy are the particles being collided by the LHC? Well, the LHC is expected to produce a higgs boson particle (and is the primary purpose for the collider) Go look up why it’s important, if you care, to find this particle, that’s not relevent to this discussion of danger. Anyway, a Higgs Boson should weigh about as much as 138 protons, or roughly 69 molecules of hydrogen… It’s hard to imagine how small this is, but I’ll try and compare…

    A water molecule is H2O, which contains 10 protons (and 8 neutrons, plus some electron change, but for the sake of ease, we’ll say 69 molecules of Hydrogen gass = 6 molecules of water in weight (it’s probably more like 3, but it doesn’t matter.)) A water drop contains 1.67 10^21 molecules of H20. again, we’re talking magnitude…this is a greater difference than 1 gallon of water and all of the water on the earth (and that’s short by 5 orders of magnitude still….) It’s MORE than the difference between the width of a strand of DNA and the distance from the earth to the sun.

    So, you take a mass that is 21 orders of magnitude smaller than 1 drop of water, and determine how much gravity it produces…Then you smash that mass down to a size smaller than anything I’ve mentioned so far, and you’re near the planck length…the smallest unit of measurement. If you know anything of string theory, a plank length is the theoretical distance between strings. It’s so ridiculously small that it’s the distance between two things that exist, it’s as close as two things can be to each other, the space between them is merely representing the fact that two things cannot occupy the same spot. It borders on being 1 dimensional. This black hole would only be slightly bigger than that. IF a black hole existed from this, it would be so monumentally small that it could pass through the empty space in a molecule. It doesn’t matter if it exists for a second, an hour, a year…the likelyhood of it absorbing mass is so small that it cannot sustain, grow, or destroy the earth.

    The problem is that people hear about black holes and how they consume everything etc etc etc. It’s simple gravity; at our earth’s core, gravity is enough to crush rock into a molten liquid center, but we’re not afraid of combustion engines. They operate on the same principle, they force liquid gasoline into a small enough space to heat up, vaporize and then ignite.

    To get a sustainable black hole that we observe in space, you would need roughly 3 times the mass of our sun. It is impossible, in the truest sense, to create that scale of black hole in our solar system. And for reference, the diameter of a black hole of that size is about 60 km. That 60km black hole doesn’t eat planets, or the galaxy around it.

    60 km is only 16 orders of magnitued smaller than our GALAXY. so, the likelihood of an LHC-produced black hole eating planet earth is SMALLER than the likelihood of the black holes that we observe consuming the earth. it’s 5 orders of magnitude smaller…the difference between a centimeter, and a kilometer.

    In summary, it is 10,000 times more likely that a black hole being observed by nasa will consumer the earth than a black hole produced by the LHC will.

    Sorry to prattle on, but this aversion to scientific discovery is comparable to the aversion to fossil fuels on the basis of global warming (a patent hoax in its own right) We conservatives ask scientists to use science to back up global warming, but then we ignore the math and science behind this experiment.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Briefly, there's no chance the LHC could destroy the world,
    > for the simple reason that every day, the earth is bombarded with
    > cosmic rays that are far more powerful (meaning, between 10 and 15
    > orders of magnitude, I'd have to look up the precise figures)
    > than the highest energies the LHC can hope to achieve.
    >
    > In effect, nature has been running super-LHC's against this and every
    > other planet and star for billions of years.
    > If the LHC could produce black holes that could stick around long enough
    > to gobble up the earth, or destablize the vacuum, or any of the other
    > doomsday scenarios that have been put forth in certain quarters,
    > then there could be no planets and no stars, b/c they would all have
    > been gobbled up themselves, billions of years ago.
    >
    > Nature already has events and particles that are far more energetic
    > than anything we have the technology to build in a lab.
    > Since the earth wasn't destroyed billions of years ago,
    > there's no chance the LHC could destroy it, or indeed any other
    > particle accelerator that's likely to be built in this lifetime.
    >

  18. Let us move forward says:

    There has been speculation each time a larger collider has been built that the earth could be destroyed. To our knowledge, all previous colliders have not produced anything that will destroy the earth. But maybe tiny stable black holes have already been produced and are slowly eating up the earth! After all, the quantities of matter accelerated in a collider are extremely small and any black hole created would be very tiny (maybe with the mass and gravity of a sugar molecule?). It should take a very long time (maybe forever) for enough mass to be absorbed by a tiny black hole for the earth to be destroyed.

    Known “black holes” are very massive “singularities” (something without dimension that exists at a single point in space) with such high gravity that light cannot escape. It is believed that very massive black holes are created when stars 1000s of times bigger than our sun collapse to a single point in space. In the February Scientific American, there is an article stating that singularities can be created that do not have high gravitation fields. Small “singularities” may be unstable and self destruct at the end of the experiment in a mini Big Bang.

    The fact is that you and I and maybe the physicists don’t know for sure what any singularities created by the collider will do. We don’t know if small singularities naturally wander through our solar system. We also don’t know if a meteor will fall to earth on top of a person’s head and kill him today. We have just recently become aware of the danger of near earth objects that could destroy life on our planet and are attempting to find a way to prevent a disastrous collusion. If the black holes persist after an experiment, it may be possible to isolate or dispose of them in safe manner. If a small singularity would wander into our solar system, could practical experience with singularities save the earth?

    The three physicists that think that “this is the one” are probably showing the difference of opinion that is normal in all scientific endeavors. I think that there are risks no matter what path is taken. I doubt that we should lose any sleep over this question. The 50 million to one odds are probably about the same as a collusion with a near earth orbit object over a year.

    Maybe what we need is more government oversight of the project! Then we would be dead for sure.

  19. Ian Thorpe says:

    I wrote a long, humourous reply on this earlier Jeff but for some reason the blog engine would not accept mu comment.

    So I edited a couple of lines for a specifically British audience and used it as my post today Scientists Now Say LHC more dangerous than they thought

    Thank you for that. It was a slow day for the kind of topic I usually post on.

  20. PattyW says:

    I saw a program on the History channel last night that talked about this. I have always been interested in math and physics and the universe is such a wondrous thing…but, all their “theories” are just that, theories. No one can prove them one way or the other. They cannot be proven as FACT. And I ask, what difference does it make if we know how the universe was created? Does it change the fact that we still need to put food on the table and a roof over our head? Most of this science is just a show of “I know more than you do.” and I say to that, “So What? I can walk and chew gum!”

  21. I Beam says:

    Crikey Demablog — you remind me of a great friend from flight school.

    Do you get out much?

  22. gailbullock says:

    DEMABLOGUE–

    Thank you for that explanation. Don’t know what you do for a living, but I am sure I’d be impressed by anything you might do.

    Inexplicably, I feel better about that Thing because of what you shared. I’m just thankful that I was not in the same classes in school that you were! –And that there are people like you who were in those classes.

    (Good grief, y’all! That must have been an exciting day for our demablogue!)

    Thank you for your explanation. It was beneficial.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I am a huge fan of this site, but I was really disappointed in the lack of respect that was shown for the scientific community in this post. As a chemist, I can tell you that scientists are told very early on that every experiment has that ability to create every outcome possible. In other words, you could mix water with oil and the world could collapse. The likelihood is nil, but it is still possible since we can’t know everything about any experiment. A perfect example is the automobile. There were scientists who calculated that there was a very slight chance that the human body would be crushed by the forces of traveling in an automobile over a certain speed. However small, these scientists still calculated the numbers and reported them. Another example is the nuclear bomb. Scientists in the Manhattan project knew that there was a small, yet calculable likelihood that the chain reaction of the first nuclear detonation would be uncontrollable and would engulf the Earth. Should we have then not created the automobile or the first nuclear weapon? Imagine what the world would be like today without cars and nuclear power.

    That said, the people at CERN are giving a statistical number for this issue because, unlike politicians who simply say “Oh, it’s too small to worry about” scientists are still willing to talk about the remote possibilities. Speaking historically, the likelihood of anything bad coming from the experiment is nearly nonexistent, while the likelihood of something good coming from the experiment is almost guaranteed.

    As to the last comment I made, let me say that there are many things which we take for granted today which came about from experiments which others called useless. Someone commented on our desire to disprove a creator. Not so. Scientists are merely interested in furthering our understanding of things which we have the capacity to understand. I am sure that everyone who is reading this enjoys the fact that they have the internet available to them, or that we can get TV from satellites, or that we can now store information on our computers which, if in print, would have taken more libraries to hold than exist in the world today, or that we can harness the energy of the sun to power our homes, etc etc. All of these discoveries and inventions were byproducts of scientific research. None of them were invented as the main goal of a research project. So, it is not fair to say that everything to this point is wonderful but don’t keep going because I am not comfortable. If you don’t want science to keep pursuing deeper and deeper mysteries of the universe, then stop using the byproducts of the research. Otherwise, accept the fact that we scientists are going to do our jobs.

  24. Let us move forward says:

    The problem is the lack of basic understanding of what science is and what one needs to know about it. Most students in high school don’t understand or wish to understand or don’t have a teacher that can help them understand science and math. Of course the problem starts earlier in elementary school where most of the teachers don’t understand anything about science and math other than what they are required to teach. Inquiring and bright elementary students are given challenges in reading and writing and social studies, but a teacher with the ability to challenge them in math and science is rare.

    Perhaps this is why US students score so poorly on science and math exams compared to the rest of the world. It is unfortunate considering how technical our world is and how knowing a little science can expand your world view or keep you from making a fatal mistake.

    Oh, don’t forget that being a science and math wiz is not generally considered “cool” in high school.

  25. Butuan says:

    I guess that from this post,they get a changeable for the benefits of a reader so that they can make it a habitual plan.

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