Taking Particle Physics to Court

By Lizzie Buchen | March 29, 2008 12:19 pm

In a few months, the Large Hadron Collider will begin creating the most energetic collisions ever seen on Earth, hoping to tackle fundamental questions about our universe—but not everyone is ready to party. Fears that physics at the LHC will lead to the catastrophic destruction of our planet are being rehashed, and this time, the fear pushers are taking their case to federal court.


Luis Sancho and former nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner, who has previously voiced concerns about an earlier particle accelerator, filed a lawsuit on March 21 in Hawaii’s U.S. District Court to delay the start-up of the LHC. The document raises theoretical apocalyptic scenarios—primarily killer strangelets, runaway black holes, and magnetic monopoles—and calls for a restraining order on the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermilab, the National Science Foundation and CERN until the LHC’s safety is reassessed.

MSNBC has a good breakdown of the most popular, but unlikely, doomsday scenarios:

  • “Runaway black holes: Some physicists say the LHC could create microscopic black holes that would hang around for just a tiny fraction of a second and then decay. Sancho and Wagner worry that millions of black holes might somehow persist and coalesce into a compact gravitational mass that would draw in other matter and grow bigger. That’s pure science fiction, said Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at the City College of New York. “These black holes don’t live very long, and they have microscopic energy, and so they are harmless,” he told me.
  • Strangelets: Smashing protons together at high enough energies could create new combinations of quarks, the particles that protons are made of. Sancho and Wagner worry that a nasty combination known as a stable, negatively charged strangelet could theoretically turn everything it touches into strangelets as well. Kaku compared this to the ancient myth of the Midas touch. “We see no evidence of this bizarre theory,” he said. “Once in a while, we trot it out to scare the pants off people. But it’s not serious.”
  • Magnetic monopoles: One theory suggests that high-energy particle collisions might give rise to massive particles that have only one magnetic pole – only north, or only south, but not the north-south magnetism that dominates nature. Sancho and Wagner worry that such particles could be created in the LHC and start a runaway reaction that converts atoms into other forms of matter. But physicists have seen no evidence of such reactions, which should have occurred already as the result of more energetic cosmic-ray collisions in Earth’s upper atmosphere.”

These worries have been around for many years, and the physics community has basically dismissed them. Of course, they accept that being sucked screaming down a black hole is something that’s fair to worry about—but they have conducted extensive risk assessment studies on both LHC and earlier particle accelerators that concluded that there is “no basis for any conceivable threat.”

Further, if these risks were real, they would be much more likely to happen in nature than at the LHC. Cosmic rays, traveling at far higher energies than those that will be produced at the LHC, have been bombarding Earth for billions of years and we’re still here.

But unfortunately, that bit of uncertainty is enough for some people to latch onto, distort, and drag into the public discourse. A New Scientist opinion article quotes CERN spokesman James Gillies, who says the lawsuit’s claims are “complete nonsense … The LHC will start up this year, and it will produce all sorts of exciting new physics and knowledge about the universe … A year from now, the world will still be here.”

Prior to suing the LHC, Wagner had an accomplished past. The Register reveals that when he appeared (alongside a time-machine professor) on the “paranormal-matters talk show Coast to Coast (‘America’s most fascinating overnight radio program’)” he claimed to have “discovered a novel particle in a balloon-borne cosmic ray detector, initially identified as a magnetic monopole.”

He may also be no stranger to lawsuits, The Register also noted, and is currently in a legal battle with the board of the World Botanical Gardens in Umauma, Hawaii, which he founded. “According to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald (free registration required), he and his wife were indicted last month by a grand jury on counts of identity theft and attempted theft relating to an alleged attempt to obtain $340,000 from the gardens company.”

Image credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/Wolfram Freudling et al. (STECF)

  • Matthew Davis

    I leave it to the brilliant scientists like Lizzie Buchen to decide the fate of the world. It’s far better than the current option: a White House occupied by theological morons.

  • Stew Mones

    Even stable microscopic black holes would harmlessly burrow a microscopic hole to the center of the earth and be content and quiet after their little nibble. How do we know there isn’t a microscopic black hole at the center of every massive body in space?

  • http://LHCConcerns.com JTankers

    The flaw with that argument [cosmic ray] that was overlooked during their previous safety assessment was that any such novel particle created in nature by cosmic ray impacts would be left with a velocity at nearly the speed of light, relative to earth. At such speeds, a novel particle such as a micro black hole that might be created in nature, is believed by most theorists to simply pass harmlessly through our planet with nary an impact, safely exiting on the other side. These would be nearly impossible to detect in nature. Conversely, any such novel particle that might be created at the LHC would be at slow speed relative to earth, a goodly percentage would then be captured by earth’s gravity, and could possibly grow larger [accrete matter] with disastrous consequences of the earth turning into a large black hole.

  • http://LHCConcerns.com JTankers


    CERN’s web site states that we have not been destroyed by effects of cosmic rays and micro black holes will evaporate.

    However, cosmic rays travel too fast to be captured by Earths gravity, and Hawking Radiation is disputed (http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0304042) and contradicts Einstein’s highly successful relativity theory.
    Collider particles smash head on like a car collision and can be captured by Earth’s gravity, and relativity predicts micro black holes will not decay (Hawking called Einstein doubly wrong, yet it is Einstein who is repeatedly found to have been correct in his theories). There is currently no reasonable proof of LHC safety, LSAG (LHC Safety Assessment Group) has been trying for months to prove safety without success. I hold the minority opinion that it may not be possible because it may in fact not be safe.

    If micro black holes are created, we may soon be trying to calculate the growth rate, and in my personal speculation, it might not be too implausible to believe that calculation might need to account for the same quantum effects that Hawking predicts but as an accelerator not as a decay factor.

    NewScientist March 22-28 “Stakes get higher in antimatter puzzle”: “We can say with greater than 99.7 per cent probability that CP violation is there” says Sivestrini [of Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics INFN] (link corrected from article: http://arxiv.org/abs/0803.0659)

    Cosmic Rays from the legal complaint.

    …any such novel particle created in nature by cosmic ray impacts would be left with a velocity at nearly the speed of light, relative to earth. At such speeds, …, is believed by most theorists to simply pass harmlessly through our planet with nary an impact, safely exiting on the other side. … Conversely, any such novel particle that might be created at the LHC would be at slow speed relative to earth, a goodly percentage would then be captured by earth’s gravity, and could possibly grow larger [accrete matter] with disastrous consequences of the earth turning into a large black hole.

    Sincerely, JTankers LHCConcerns.com

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  • paul

    66 thousand phsicists work around the black hole factory and related industries, do
    you expect them to close down their livehood?
    what worries more is the systematic lies, and the arrogance and dismissive attitude of people like that NY professor. he must know for sure that cosmic rays are exactly the opposite of
    dark matter: light fast particles vs. heavy slow ones. By reductio ad absurdum if A is the opposite of b B, cosmic rays, will never become A, dark matter. Today we know strange matter will be stable at cern with the energy used. black hole evaporation has never found and contradicts the laws of causality (travel to the past) and hence the laws of thermodynamics (the hot source gets hotter instead of cooling down and evaporating our world). Physicists have made all the mass weapons of destruction since saint galileo of ballistics to saint nobel of the dynamite to saint einstein of the atomic bomb, and now they are all siding with the guys that are gonna make cosmic bombs? Evil is indeed the opposite of Live. Problem is they never have been judged. In Nuremberg we fought to bring them here. It is time for mankind to protect itself of this kind of scientific terrorists, which get our dollars. Indeed, what shoudl surprise us is that this is not taken by our politicians but have to be individual citizens who raise the issue.

  • http://LHCConcerns.com JTankers

    Professor Dr. Otto E. Roessler estimates 50 months Earth accretion time from a single micro black hole captured by Earth’s gravity (www.golem.de/0802/57477-4.html, translation at http://www.lhcconcerns.com/LHCConcerns/Forums/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=52)

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  • mark neria

    The only thing that our boys in Hawaii are looking for is a safety study and analysis. The possibility looms large that civilizations left this planet abruptly for reasons unknown. We have to ensure that this does not happen to us. Even though the possibility of such a catastrophe is minute, it still exists. There is no public outcry because one of the proponents of firing up this device and throwing caution to the wind is Steve Hawking. Just as there are sex addicts, there are science addicts who cannot wait to see this thing go no matter what the consequences.
    If a sex addict received a phone call from “J-Lo” telling the addict that she will be over in half an hour. “have your clothes off and light some candles”. Do you think the sex addict will call her back and say “hey, wait a minute, aren’t you married?
    Irvine, CA

  • http://discovermagazine.com/ Lizzie Buchen

    Hey Mark, I’m from Irvine too, so I understand that anything that goes on east of the 5 can be pretty daunting. But really, the safety studies and analyses have been performed. Exhaustively. The underlying phenomana of strangelets and black holes are theoretically possible, and have been discussed in the scientific literature, but they won’t happen here. “No basis for any conceivable threat” is as close as you’ll ever hear a scientist come to saying “not a chance.” Here are the three main arguments that should really reassure anyone:

    1. nature’s constantly doing way more than the LHC. cosmic rays are much more powerful than anything that will happen at the LHC, so if anything was a physical possibility, it would have happened in the cosmos. and we would have known about it.
    2. physicists have families, too. There are thousands of people working on the LHC all over the world, and if they saw this sort of a threat they’d not only speak up–they’d be screaming about it. I’ve worked with particle physicists, and believe me, they don’t “throw caution to the wind.”
    3. Third party physicists were assigned the duty of thinking of ever possible scenario, conceiving of anything that could possibly go wrong, and still couldn’t come up with any scenario that actually suggested that there was any sort of a danger.

    This is all a result of a misunderstanding, of taking scary words like “black hole” out of context. I encourage you to learn about particle physics and the LHC and get excited!! The Irvine Spectrum will be here for decades to come, I promise.

  • C. Janicki

    Those in defense of the LHC experiment are using flawed arguments to support their claims about safety. This is exactly why a court case was initiated by by Wagner and Sancho. The key point is that,. contrary to the cosmic ray false argument, mini black holes at CERN will be produced at rest, be trapped by earth’s gravitational field and could accumulate at it’s center. Nobody at CERN’s contradicts that. Nobody at CERN’s say they will not produce mini black hole at rest. But they say we’ll survive armageddon since mini black holes evaporate anyway. Well, in my opinion, this is being self-righteous and arrogant since nobody every saw a mini black hole evaporate. The proof in their argument rely on blind faith in the physics we are trying to validate through experiments. So, the bottom line is it’s an act of faith. Either the theory is right and we’ll survive, or the theory is wrong and the black holes will destroy us. This is a dangerous game to play and it’s all about blind faith, scientism, self-righteousness, pride, and above all big big money.

  • S. Day

    Indeed, CERN experts say the probability of creating stable mini black hole that could destroy the earth is minuscule. Initially, they ridiculed the idea, but now they say it’s a possibility but a remote one. And they are playing God with peoples life based on their own beliefs of their biased understanding of physics. But nobody knows what’s going to happen. Nobody. Any one who claims the contrary is either crazy or lying. It’s all a matter of blind faith in the theory of physics that has yet to be proven. Science must not be based on faith, and creating an irreversible catastrophe shouldn’t be left in the hands of physics fundamentalists and believers. Physics has become a powerful religion, and a dangerous one.

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  • Paul Thompson

    if all the scaremongers are right, then it’ll be all over in a nano second so who cares…if cavemen never left the caves for fear of what was outside we’d never even exsist. So go for it, push the envelope, take the plunge, see what occurs, what a laugh …


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