Don’t panic!

By Phil Plait | March 17, 2005 4:07 pm

A few years back, there was a minor flurry of worry about how scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York were doing experiments that might destroy the Earth. The lab has a particle accelerator, a device designed to (duh) accelerate particles. They smash the subatomic critters together, and watch what happens. A lot of insight into nature comes out of such things, and labs such as Brookhaven have greatly increased our knowledge.

Well, some folks were concerned that the Mad Scientists at Brookhaven might accidentally create a black hole, which would then fall into the Earth, and eat it up atom by atom. Eventually the entire planet would get munched by the black hole, and we’d all die.

At the time, I thought this was silly. No scientist would ever do such a thing! They’d never get another grant.

Closeup of a black hole Closeup of a black hole

Well, this has turned up again. A scientist at Brookhaven has speculated that a recent experiment might just have created a black hole. Now, my knowledge of the particular experiment in question is limited to that article I just linked, so don’t go asking me about quantum tunneling phase dispersive chronosynclastic infundibula. The stuff I study tends to be quite a bit bigger than your average neutron.

But I suspect that there are plenty of otherwise mundane explanations to the puzzling results of the Brookhaven experiment outlined in that news article. Not that I know what they are. But I’d just love to be near a water cooler at Brookhaven right now. I can imagine what they’re chatting about.

Was a black hole created? I don’t know. But if there was, I am not terribly concerned. For one thing, higher-energy particles than what they do at Brookhaven hit the Earth relatively often. If these created black holes, and they were dangerous, the Earth would have been toast a few billion years ago. The fact that we are still here attests to this being benign. How many people do you know who have been killed by a quantum black hole?

Also, black holes this tiny evaporate before they can do any damage. Evaporate, you say? I thought they only got bigger! Well, read this, or read this, if you dig equations and higher-level stuff. Or just Google "Hawking radiation".

Still and all, I also expect two things: 1) lots of email about this, and 2) the anti-science websites will go nuts. "We’re alllll gonna diiiiieeee!" So I’ll ask it again: How many people do you know who have been killed by a quantum black hole?

I don’t know of any, and I know lots of people who study black holes. So don’t panic. If and when scientists can create a real black hole in the lab, you wont hear about it on silly anti-science websites. You’ll hear about it on some silly scientist’s blog.


Comments (29)

  1. >>>quite a bit bigger than your average neutron.

    Well, *my* neutrons aren’t average!

    >>>How many people do you know who have been killed by a quantum black hole?

    Judge Crater? Okay, I didn’t actually *know* him… :-)

  2. The Supreme Canuck

    “How many people do you know who have been killed by a quantum black hole?”

    I love this! Sounds like some sort of slogan.

  3. Spaz

    Oh, so you’re not talking about Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? :p

  4. Love the colose up of the blackhole 😆

  5. Michelle Rochon

    I don’t know, but the idea of creating a black hole in a lab is interesting… And think of the upcoming products! “Black hole vacuum cleaner”! If they would market these, I could clean my bedroom in no time! Sure, I’d have no bedroom left after it’s done, but it would be clean!

  6. Van Rijn

    Physicist John Cramer has a short article on the subject of possibly creating black holes in a collider:

    He explains the background and has a nice question and answer list. The short, short version is that some ideas in String/Brane theory suggest gravity at very short distances or very high energies could be much stronger than predicted in the Standard Model. By the Standard Model, it would be impossible to create a black hole with anything we could build. But with the new theories, it might just be possible. It would evaporate by Hawking radiation almost immediately, which is apparently what the BBC article says is being observed.

    I would note that if this is a real discovery, it would be the first observation of Hawking radiation. If we could actually reach energies that exceeded that of the extreme high energy particles hitting Earth, I’d have some concern, regardless of current theory. Since we can’t, I don’t see any reason to be worried.

  7. Ben Lillie

    Check out Peter Steinberg’s blog on this:

    No black holes there. Interesting physics, but nothing like the media hype.

  8. The Bad Astronomer

    Thanks for the link to that other blog. I’ll have to keep track of it. I am looking for more astronomy blogs to link to…

  9. Ben Lillie

    It’s not Astronomy blogs exactly, but you might like to check out the whole quantum diaries site:

    They’ve gotten a bunch of high-energy phyicists and cosmologists to blog about life and science, as part of the world year of physics.

    Also, one of my favorite all-around blogs is cosmologist Sean Carroll’s:

  10. Michael Baker

    “Closeup of a Black Hole,” that’s just about the funniest pic I’ve ever seen… right up there with “A Closeup of the Horizon.” Keep up the good work BA!

  11. Wolfgang Draxinger

    I’ve read about this in the webnews of german tech magazine publisher Heise.

    However my first thought was: You loosers, I’ve a block hole in my bathroom since years. But somehow it has specialized in sucking single sox, but I’m still not sure if this singularity is a bug or a feature of my washing machine 😉

  12. Ben Lillie

    I tried posting links to my favorite astronomy-ish blogs (aside from this one of course 😉 ), but the spam filter ate it. So, I’ll let you do the googling:

    Sean Carroll at preposterousuniverse is a cosmologist at the University of Chicago.

    Mark Trodden at orangequark does cosmology and particle physics in Syracuse.

    The Quantum Diaries site has blogs from a number of scientists for the World Year of Phycis. They’re mostly particle people, but a few are in Cosmology/Astrophysics.

    On a more general science note the editors of Scientific American have a blog that they comment on occasionally.

    Also, the Panda’s Thumb could be called “Bad Evolution”, great site.

    Hopefully there was some new information for you in there somewhere.

  13. Zimbel42

    I’m a litle disappointed that you didn’t read the draft article that this high-level news article was based on:
    If the author (Horatiu Nastase) is correct, this has large implications for the testability of string theory.

  14. Rob

    If scientists create a black hole in a lab and it ISN’T benign… we won’t hear about it at all. :)

  15. Well, we’ll hear the “AIEEEEEE! WHAT’S THE HECK IS THAT BIG BLACK THING?”….

    *laughs at “closeup of black hole” picture*

  16. IVAN3MAN

    To see if this bloody works!

  17. IVAN3MAN

    With Extra Large Font!

  18. IVAN3MAN

    With Extra Large Matisse ITC Font!

  19. IVAN3MAN

    Deleted by me after testing.

  20. IVAN3MAN

    TESTING… 1… 2… 3…

  21. IVAN3MAN

    TESTING… TESTING… 1… 2… 3…  

  22. IVAN3MAN
  23. N/A

    😈 👿 😡 😯 :roll: 😆 :mrgreen: 😎

  24. N/A

    😮 😐 😀 😛

  25. N/A
  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow IVAN3MAN you haven’t changed much in all these years have you? 😉

    PS. looks like it worked. :-)


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