An utterly incomprehensible paper has been produced by a team of physicists, designed to make everyone feel better about the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider will produce black holes that will suck the Earth into themselves.

There is no effort whatsoever in this paper to speak to normal people. The most I can get out of it is that yes, black holes can form, and possibly very many of them, but it will take them longer to destroy the planet than it will take the sun to destroy the planet by exploding on its present schedule (of some billions of years from now). Which makes no sense to me at all until I saw this in the paper:

i-3e69757bc7246d8a6a0807af04327d1d-stopping_black_holes.jpg

Ah, that makes me feel so much better….

Comments

  1. #1 Russell Seitz
    June 24, 2008

    Me too- what’s your problem with plain vanilla physics lucidly stated ?

    Perhaps it should be forwarded to Andy Schafly, so he can use the Data Quality Act to demand delivery of a duplicate Large Hadron Collider to Human Events

  2. #2 Markk
    June 24, 2008

    That paper was for physicists and used physicist language. So to translate. From cosmic rays we get 1600 particle collisions per square kilometer per year in the atmosphere with the right angle and at least the energy of the LHC. So billions and billions a year globally. So if these things commonly made black holes to eat the earth it would have already happened. In fact at higher than LHC energies these events are all we can look at so we have already built big detectors such as Ice Cube, buried in the clear ice in Antarctica to look at them (among other things).

    The reason for a lot of the other junk in the paper is an analyis of an extended argument like this: Suppose that there is some bad thing that could happen, but it is NOT common, but super super rare. Could the increased luminosity at LHC cause a rare thing to happen and destroy us all? Well if it could happen with a real low chance, then if we look around the galaxy we should still see it happening since the high energy cosmic ray flux is similar in the areas we see. If we add up all the events we could see we get a higher number of events than will ever happen at LHC. We don’t see anything happening out there so it must have a real low probability of happening (0 is very low by the way).

  3. #3 Justin M
    June 24, 2008

    DID YOU SEE THOSE UNITS???!? (GeV)^-3*GeV-1?!?!!?!? WTF

    And I thought that cm^-1 as a unit of energy was crazy. I stand corrected.

  4. #4 phisrow
    June 24, 2008

    I must confess a slight degree of disappointment. I’m not actually in favor of global annihilation; but, out of the endless parade of possible ways that humanity will meet its end, “Engulfed by Black Holes of own Faustian Creation” does rather catch the eye.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2008

    Markk. … right, fine, but what you are saying here has to be completely wrong, right? I mean, if the events that the LHC is going to generate happen all the time everywhere, why are they building the LHC?????

  6. #6 Polyester Mather D.D.
    June 25, 2008

    This seems most unfair to Faust, whose most energetic demand was for Helen of Troy, by all accounts containing ~10 exp 28 nucleons massing a few MEV each.

    At 10exp17 EV, the event horizon of CERN’s best shot black hole could barely launch an attoship.This is not the stuff eschatons are made of.

  7. #7 Polyester Mather D.D.
    June 25, 2008

    This seems most unfair to Faust, whose most energetic demand was for Helen of Troy, by all accounts containing ~10 exp 28 nucleons massing a few MEV each.

    At 10exp17 EV, the event horizon of CERN’s best shot black hole could barely launch an attoship.This is not the stuff eschatons are made of.

  8. #8 Magpie
    June 25, 2008

    Markk. … right, fine, but what you are saying here has to be completely wrong, right? I mean, if the events that the LHC is going to generate happen all the time everywhere, why are they building the LHC?????

    Chemistry happens all the time everywhere (well, lots of places, anyway), but we still make test tubes.

  9. #9 yogi-one
    June 25, 2008

    When is the movie coming out?

  10. #10 James Haight
    June 25, 2008

    Because they happen rather often all around us, but seldomly in the right places – ie. right in the exact centers of high-tech particle detectors the size of a few apartment buildings glued together.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2008

    Magpie: That is the best version of that answer I’ve seen yet. Well done. Magpie and James: I don’t believe that this is what the physicists are saying. They are talking about reactions happening in the LHC that they otherwise can’t make happen, otherwise can’t see. Not reactions (and I use the word reactions in deference to MP’s metaphor … I know they are not “reactions”) that they just can’t get near. If, for instance, we could honesty say that Higgs Bosons were forming all over, then why are we asking the question “do they exist?”

    Just to be clear: I started my discussion of this issue weeks ago in a somewhat tongue and cheek manner. Over time I expected to become educated in what is going on here. As a life scientist/anthropologist with a long time interest in cosmology and physics, I assumed that eventually I would bump into sufficient information that I myself could write a few paragraphs assuaging any concerns that anyone might have. But the easily available writing on this has not yet been adequate.

    So now I’m wondering if this is just me not reading enough or the realities of the system not being well enough understood by those who have bothered to try to explain it.

    Or, third possibility: We’re doomed!!!

  12. #12 Charlie
    June 25, 2008

    Greg, just as an example more close to your field, bacteria is also everywhere. To look at it in a detailed study to see what the hell is going on though, you’ve got to take a sample of that bacteria, cultivate it, slice up it’s DNA and put it back in. That’s the same with the LHC to find Higgs, however, if Higgs is out there like bacteria, it’s much much harder to confine, collect and see, let alone slice up. One answer to this is to look across the whole universe for evidence it’s there. The other is to recreate the conditions for it. You could look at the night sky for the collisions to happen (and they happen fairly often). But to see the results is difficult, so there would be no real way of finding out what particles could have been created from the collisions. In particle accelerators there’s usually targets or chambers to observe the results.

    Quite a lot of these papers were done as risk management for the investors and have only come up recently due to the energies they can now work at and the collisions could create black holes. It would be unlikely though; for one, the probability of creating one is fairly small. If they do, they’ll be tiny and Hawking radiation (hope that Hawking is right, of course) will act pretty quick. The amount of radiation involves means the black holes will have little to no time to act before rapidly evaporating. The paper is just determining the range of values that above the LHC energies could produce large amount of flux and then uses that value to then determine what the particles might do. The GKZ cutoff, for example is the energy at which protons are unable to propagate through photons in space and that’s the maximum energy for cosmic rays. That’s a lot of energy and they’re just exploring the possibilities from what I can gather.

  13. #13 Ian
    June 25, 2008

    And here I thought a Large Hadron Collider was two big dinosaurs bumping into each other….

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2008

    Now we may be getting somewhere. I still do not accept any level of comfort with “we don’t know they exist … they are colliding with each other all the time” … and I’m not sure if this is just a matter of the “possibility” of Higgs Bosons being hype (i.e., are they a certainty but we don’t want to say that so we can get even more excited when we find one?)

    But putting that aside, let me ask this: generally, how does a thing get to be a black hole, meaning a gravitationally very dense accumulation of matter with an event horizon, AND get to evaporate.

    (Is “evaporate” a metaphor? Metaphorically, a black hole is a glass of water that the water cannot get out of.)

  15. #15 Charlie
    June 25, 2008

    Well, the Higgs Boson is one of the more likely candidates to help fill holes in the standard model, which is why everyone is more focused on it. It would explain how massless elementary particles construct mass in matter and the huge gap between a photon (electromagnetism), which essentially has no mass, and Wand Z Bosons (weak nuclear forces within the atom). That would mean the standard model would be correct, so I can’t blame them for the hype. I’m not comfortable with it either though. The assumption is that they should exist but there’s no way apart from the LHC to determine that. The energies they’re using could reveal other possibilities though.

    For the black holes, Hawking radiation is basically thermal radiation from the black holes due to quantum mechanics. Near the horizon of black holes, particles have their anti-particles separated from them due to gravitational effects of the black hole. Due to quantum mechanics, they could both fall in, both escape, or one particle falls in while the other escapes. That one that escapes is real and the other in the black hole remains virtual and to keep the conservation of energy becomes a negative mass, so it detracts from the mass of the black hole. Evaporate is a metaphor in this case. For mini black holes, which are tiny and being bombarded with high energy particles, they’ll ‘evaporate’ faster and should have little to no effect.

  16. #16 Daniel C. Smith
    June 25, 2008

    The reason we can’t detect the Higgs by watching cosmic ray events is because if it exists at all it has a very, very short lifetime. We won’t even see it directly in the detectors of the LHC. We’ll only see the bits into which it decays. We need to catch all the decay products in the detectors so we can reconstruct the event and be sure that it was a Higgs boson and not something else that decayed into all those bits. As far as I know, you can’t do that by watching the sky.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2008

    The assumption is that they should exist but there’s no way apart from the LHC to determine that. Which means…. that the LHC is not merely replicating shit that is flying around all the time. It is designed to produce things that do not normally happen at any regular frequency on or really near the Earth, now.

    Charlie, ok, I knew about that Hawking thing (it has been a matter of discussion recently because of some bet somebody made). So we now accept pretty much fully that Hawking was right on this? Your explanation makes great sense.

    Putting in another way, the rate of matter accretion in a tiny black hole …. which exists at a scale where gravity is not the major force (relatively speaking) that it is at the solar-system or planetary or whatever level of size, is very slow. The rate of matter (in the form of enigmatically massless photons, which are presumably popped out of protons or whatever) via the Hawking doppleganger thingie is relatively high.

    That makes sense. I can’t tell if it is true, but I can totally understand this. Thanks.

    Daniel: Thanks, that is helpful.

    It is disconcerting though. The eerie weird stuff that happens at quantum sizes are not supposed to happen anywhere but in massive stars, specially designed equipment, and the minds of physicists.

    How many solar systems do you think have utterly disappeared because all the quantum-range ‘particles’ decided randomly to become some-when else at exactly the same ‘time’???

    And ‘where’ are they now?

  18. #18 Coriolis
    June 25, 2008

    I’m in solid state and not high energy so this may be wrong but I think what charlie was saying was that the collisions that will happen in the LHC DO happen all the time with cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere (at least according to current theory, that’s certainly what my high energy friends say). However, it’s impossible to properly measure what’s really happening unless we can do the experiment in the controlled environment of the LHC detector and measure all the crap that spews out of a collision. I think in very simple terms the argument boils down to basically – this type of stuff happens alot. We aren’t dead yet. So it must not be all that dangerous.

    And no, I don’t think people accept “fully” that Hawking was right about evaporation of black holes. Mainly because he was mixing a classical theory like general relativity with quantum mechanics, and nobody is certain how gravity actually functions in a quantum system. Unfortunately that’s probably the biggest unknown in modern physics, and nobody currently knows how to do quantum gravity. But it sure sounds nice that you can just have pair production and evaporate black holes that way.

    And I don’t know what you’re talking about at the end, none of these things require a macroscopic quantum effect which is I assume what you mean by a bunch of particles deciding to be something else. Of course we do have systems which have macroscopic quantum effects, like superconductors for example, but what Daniel is simply saying is that when these collisions happen a whole lot of junk comes out which quickly decays into even more junk. For physicists to be able to figure out what the intermediate stuff was (i.e. was it the presumed higgs boson), we’d need to measure *all* of the junk that comes out of a collision. And that’s not possible to do in the upper atmosphere – you need huge detectors all around.

  19. #19 Theo Bromine
    June 25, 2008

    How many solar systems do you think have utterly disappeared because all the quantum-range ‘particles’ decided randomly to become some-when else at exactly the same ‘time’???
    And ‘where’ are they now?

    And, the LHC is further increasing the risk of this happening, not only by virtue of its particles, but because, according to the late, great Douglas Adams:

    “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
    There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

    As for “where” things go when they disappeared, that question brings to mind a quote from Niels Bohr who, when asked regarding a double slit experiment where the electron could be said to be, responded, “To be? To be? What does it mean to be?”

  20. #20 CS
    June 25, 2008

    I can answer the “why build the LHC if these events happen elsewhere?” question. Generally, when a high energy collision occurs, several particles are created and move away from the collision point at high speed. The idea is to track these particles, identify them, and then reconstruct from their motions what happened in the collision.

    However, most of these particles are unstable and will decay into other particles. Some of those particles, like muons, will travel relatively far (many meters) before they decay; while others, like the bottom quark, will travel only a tiny fraction of a millimeter before decaying. In the latter case, you see the decay products of the bottom quark; from those decay products, you work back that you have a bottom quark moving with some momentum, then try to work back from that (did the bottom quark come from a top quark that decayed?). Particles like the top quark and Higgs decay extremely quickly, traveling only femptometers (the width of a nucleus) before decaying into something else, so we are not able to track them directly. Instead, there is a complicated process of tracking what you can, determining where and what decayed to produce those tracks, and (if those were intermediate particles) working back from that to figure out where _those_ particles came from. This whole process is called the event reconstruction.

    Ideally, you want to track and identify all the primary particles (the original products of the collision), but as I said, some of those particles decay way too quickly to see. Then you want to track and identify the secondary particles (products of decays of the primary particles). Oftentimes, these are particles that _also_ decay somewhat quickly, but maybe after traveling a fraction of a millimeter (like the b quark). If you cannot directly detect these, you must track tertiary particles. The lower down you go, the more difficult it is to correctly determine what the primary particles were and there is also the problem that, far enough away from the initial collision, the tracks for primary, secondary, and tertiary particles may be indistinguishable.

    Because of this, it is extremely important to be able to follow what is going on within a millimeter of the collision point. When you see these big detectors, you generally find, from outside inward, a muon detector (muons tend to travel outside the detector before decaying), an electron/photon detector (these tend to travel some distance, but interact with matter and produce showers of electrons and photons), a hadron detector (for bound states of light quarks, which produce showers of other light quark states), and finally a central tracker. This central tracker likely has a resolution of a millimeter or less around the interaction point (this allows us to determine if b quarks were produced). The whole system, however, only works for collisions that occur in that central, sub-millimeter region. For an example of a detector, see CMS:

    http://cmsinfo.cern.ch/outreach/CMSdetectorInfo/CMSdetectorInfo.html

    So, after the long description, the upshot is that the “active” area of these detectors are less than a mm^3. The accelerators will deliver billions/trillions+ of collisions to this region. On the other hand, cosmic rays induce these high energy collisions at a somewhat slower rate, but over the entire volume of the Earth; a volume trillions of time larger than the effective volume of an accelerator detector. The rate of these interactions per mm^3 is tiny, so a detector will never be able to harness cosmic ray collisions effectively. To use cosmic rays as our source for collisions, we would need to build huge numbers of these detectors. Each of these detectors is a sizable fraction of the cost of the accelerator itself, so that becomes prohibitively expensive.

    There are additional issues as well.

    Accelerators produce collisions with the center of mass in the same frame as the detector; that means particles will shoot out in all directions and it is relatively easy to distinguish between different tracks. Cosmic ray collisions, however, have a center of mass frame that moves extremely fast relative to us; that means particles produced in the collision will all move in approximately the same direction as the incoming cosmic ray (the trajectories would differ by less than a degree in most cases). Even if you could get a bunch of cosmic rays to collide in your detector, you would need to make that detector much longer and much more sensitive to get the same level of detail as with the accelerator collisions.

    Finally, accelerators have a somewhat well defined collision energy because the energy of the colliding particles can be controlled (there is some uncertainty in proton colliders because the collisions occur between the quarks and gluons in the protons and there is some variation in how much of the proton’s momentum may be carried by the quark/gluon that collides). The cosmic rays come in with very different energies, varying by many orders of magnitude. That makes interpreting results more difficult and reduces our ability to produce any precision measurements.

    So, while the universe provides a cheap and abundant source of high energy collisions, we are just unable to use them effectively. Hence, we build accelerators.

  21. #21 CS
    June 25, 2008

    Also, papers on the arXiv repository, like the one you refer to, a generally meant for other physicists. It was quite readable to me. ;)

    If articles on the arXiv are meant for a more general audience, they are more likely to be found under the physics section (not the hep-ph section, like this one).

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    June 25, 2008

    Please see the current (latest) post on this blog for a pointer to something you all should read. Which, in turn, has pointers to three or four other items of interest.

  23. #23 Marc Hernandez
    June 25, 2008

    I see it as similar to how an automobile engineer studies accidents. Yeah, she could stand on a particular road and wait for one to happen but that is messy and there is a very very low chance she’ll be in the right place at the right time.

    If she does it in a laboratory she’ll have complete control of the experiment and can run it over and over again.

  24. #24 rpenner
    June 25, 2008

    Hi, Greg. The referenced paper has appeared in the DOE’s courtroom response to Walter Wagner. The motivation seems similar to a biology paper which is a response to critics claiming splicing indigo-producing genes into bacteria will produce some sort of Communist Revolution. No mechanism was given by the anti-gene-splicer group, but they assert Communism = bad and Communists = wear a lot of indigo dye.

    I have taken upon myself to “translate” the Giddings-Mangano study into a nearly mathless summary for the masses. By sheerest coincidence it vaguely resembles the format of a deposition.

    http://www.physforum.com/index.php?showtopic=4830&view=findpost&p=351592

    You (all) have my permission to reproduce it in whole or in part.

  25. #25 Ian
    June 26, 2008

    And here I thought the Higgs Bo’sun was the warrant officer onboard the Higgs warship….