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.

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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)

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