Physics Experiment Won’t Destroy Earth

By Eliza Strickland | June 23, 2008 9:23 am

Large Hadron ColliderWell, that’s a relief. After a long safety review, physicists have declared that the enormous atom smasher that’s expected to go online this fall won’t create tiny black holes that will “eat” our planet. So that’s one less thing to worry about.

The Large Hadron Collider, which is being built near Geneva, Switzerland, will do things with subatomic particles that humans have never done before, causing some people to worry that scientists might be unwittingly building a doomsday devise. The $8 billion machine is designed to accelerate protons, the building blocks of ordinary matter, to energies of 7 trillion electron volts and then bang them together to produce tiny primordial fireballs, miniature versions of the Big Bang. Physicists will comb the detritus from those fireballs in search of forces and particles and even new laws of nature that might have prevailed during the first trillionth of a second of time [The New York Times].

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is building the particle accelerator, and is therefore responsible for making sure it won’t wipe out the planet. While the agency’s scientists have conducted numerous safety audits, some skeptics have maintained that researchers can’t predict what will happen when they flip the switch.

In March, two men filed a lawsuit in federal court in Hawaii asking that the construction be halted until CERN produced a new safety report and environmental assessment. The plaintiffs say that CERN’s researchers 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” [The New York Times]. The lawsuit is unlikely to stop the experiment, however, as experts say the federal court doesn’t have jurisdiction over an international agency based in Europe.

The new safety report examines the possibility that the particle collisions could create microscopic black holes, a hypothesis based on the weird physics of string theory. But the report states that even if black holes are created when the particles smash into each other (a phenomenon that the report says is “not expected in theory”), they will pose “no risk of any significance whatsoever.”

The report’s argument follows the basic line used in past reports: Even the most energetic collisions planned for the [Large Hadron Collider] are far less powerful than cosmic-ray collisions that have been going on for billions of years. “Nature has already generated on Earth as many collisions as about a million LHC experiments – and the planet still exists,” CERN said [MSNBC].

Image: Courtesy of CERN

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
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