The Scientific Activist

The arguably wacky premise behind a New York Times article this Saturday is that the Large Hadron Collider (LHR)–slated to be the world’s most impressive particle accelerator when it’s up and running later this year–could inadvertently produce an Earth-destroying black hole. Or, that’s at least what a couple of guys in Hawaii think, and they’re pursuing a lawsuit in federal court there to stop it. (Note: the LHR is located in CERN… in Switzerland.)

Despite cries of “propaganda” from the plaintiffs, scientists aren’t having any of that, and are trying to put all of this to rest with plenty of boring science speak:

The Large Hadron Collider is designed to fire up protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts before banging them together. Nothing, indeed, will happen in the CERN collider that does not happen 100,000 times a day from cosmic rays in the atmosphere, said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

…or it would have been a bunch of boring science speak if the article hadn’t originally read “The Large Hardon Collider is designed to fire up protons to energies of seven trillion electron volts before banging them together.”

Hard-ons? Banging? OK, scientists, now you have my attention. So, what is this Large Hardon Collider thing, anyway?

Oogly explains:

The LHC is expected to become the world’s largest and highest energy penile accelerator ever assembled. Expected to penetrate new areas, the LHC will produce high speed, head-on collisions between beams of yonic and phallic particles.

When switched on, it is hoped that colliding the hard-on will produce the elusive Higgs Climactic Particle — often dubbed the ‘Oh God! Part’ — the observation of which could confirm the ‘missing contacts’ for my human intercourse, and explain how other elementary parts acquire properties such as [m]ass, attraction, hotness, chemistry, etc.

Check out the link to see a schematic of how the Large Hardon Collider works.

Getting back to the issue at hand (ah hem), though, this lawsuit is as absurd as the Time’s typo was hilarious. Whether or not the LHC could actually produce a black hole (and whether that black hole would survive and endanger the planet) is a scientific question–one that should be (and already has been) addressed by scientific inquiry and scientific oversight panels. None of this has so far cast doubts on the safety of the LHC.

Although it is outlandish, this lawsuit isn’t something that should necessarily be ignored by the scientific community. Science and the courts have a mixed history, which shouldn’t be surprising, since the courts have no basis from which to settle scientific disputes. And, since the science is only ever just implicitly on trial (the explicit question is a legal one, of course), you can’t assume that the court’s decision and scientific opinion will fall on the same side. Flip a coin: heads, Dover; tails, Scopes.

Given the dubious legal basis of the case in question, however, it’s difficult to see how this one could proceed anyway. Besides, with a name so ripe for parody, who wouldn’t want the LHC to stick around for a long, long time.?


  1. #1 sivie
    April 1, 2008

    cern news: Look what I found..
    The man who compared himself to a proton ! On 20 May, Gianni Motti went down into the LHC tunnel and walked around the 27 kilometres of the underground ring at an average, unaccelerated pace of 5 km/h


  2. #2 gribley
    April 1, 2008

    The suit presumably doesn’t have standard (but IANAL). But is it really so absurd? Offhand, do you have a way to estimate the probability that a strangelet will destroy the Earth? No, you don’t, and neither do I. (The last time I took a high-energy physics class, we didn’t even suspect the Higgs boson.)

    I think the idea that it’s a scientific problem, for debate only within the scientific community, is remarkably arrogant. There’s no single clear mechanism for public control over science, but it’s not unreasonable that sometimes there should be. Obviously the courts aren’t a good way to proceed, but they are used because there aren’t many other routes. The Danish “Consensus Conference” model is a nice example of what might be possible. In this particular case, the probability of creating a Bad Outcome doesn’t need to be very large before the expected value of the number of people killed reaches a threshold of concern. Why should I have any faith in the CERN oversight panel — surely there’s a bit of conflict of interest there?

    Science should serve society, but that may sometimes mean that it needs to listen to society. I know little about the details of this case, but to dismiss it outright is surely less scientific (and less engaged, and less precautionary) than we should shoot for. I think it was Martin Rees who suggested a Blue Team/Red Team strategy of uninvolved experts coming up with best- and worst-case scenarios. That seems like a start. But if he calculated the odds of the LHC’s predecessor destroying the world as ~1 in 50 million, perhaps we should be wondering how the rest of the people affected think about this little gamble, rather than playing Ivory Tower.

  3. #3 Left_wing_fox
    April 2, 2008

    Gribley: I, as a memeber of othe public, am remarkably reassured by three facts.

    First, is that the sort of interactions being tested here happen naturally to us. In the past 4.5 billion years, cosmic rays likely produced all the effects the LHC is meant to produce. If these doomsday scenarios could have happened before now, the probability is that they would have happened by now.

    Second, the instances where these theoretical particles occur naturally (strangelets, black holes, supernovae etc) happen only at such mind-bogglingly massive scales, that it is literally impossible for us with present technology to reproduce these. For instance, it requires a star at least 1.5 times more massive than our sun to create a black hole. The sun is over 300,000 times more massive than the Earth. We are too small and too weak gravitationally to sustain these sort of catastrophic reactions.

    Finally, these guys have been screaming “The Sky is falling” for years, and have been wringing their hands over the end of the world with every new particle smasher that has come online. I’ll have to pull up a link to the thread these two jokers inhabited, but it was over 60 pages long, stretched on for years, and were utterly impervious to any facts, queries or arguents presented to them. Perhaps the most amazing thing was the header, which made the same predictions at the top of every post, but added the names of new particle accelerators as they came online, without ever striking the old ones off.

    Scientists are not the ones guilty of arrogance here. The arrogance comes from people who are unwilling to understand the basics of the debate before popping in and spouting off an opinion. Ignorance breeds the worst arrogance of all.

  4. #4 GAC
    April 2, 2008

    I have been told that in the beginning it was feared that the chain reaction used in nuclear bombs and power plants could spread through the atmosphere and destroy the Earth. I never did any research on it myself — but it sounds similar to this, a baseless fear that pursuit of scientific knowledge will instantly destroy us — as is so often the theme of science fiction.

    Nuclear energy did prove dangerous, but not with the same doomsday scenario. In comparison, CERN seems pretty well harmless — it’s not a weapon (unless they’re secretly making a proton beam or something :P ) — and it doesn’t sound like it’s going to explode or contaminate the environment. I’m willing to say the suit is unwarranted — it just looks like someone with a lot of money watches too much TV.

  5. #5 Andrew
    April 2, 2008

    “Why should I have any faith in the CERN oversight panel — surely there’s a bit of conflict of interest there? ”

    This assumes that:

    a) You should have faith in demagogues with agendas to push and those who have not done the research over people that have.

    b) That is is somehow in CERN’s interests to destroy the planet.

    As much as people like to think otherwise, everyone does not have a broad grounding of all types of knowledge. To make a silly analogy (analogies always are), if you have a problem with your plumbing, you call a plumber, you do not wander the streets taking a poll of how you should fix it yourself and indeed *if* you should. Even though this goes against the public having a right to know and even though it plays into the Plumber Apocalyptic Conpiracy.

    Just try to prove to me that plumbers are not trying to destroy the world with their elaborate pumps and piping. Of course they will say hey are not, but why should you have faith in plumbers? Isn’t there a conflict of interest there?

  6. #6 Frederick Ross
    April 2, 2008

    The end of the NYT article also noted that these clowns tried the same trick against Brookhaven when they were getting ready to start up RHIC.

    But everyone knows that mad scientists (defined as any scientist who constructs an apparatus over ten meters in size) want to destroy the world! They’re just not very good at it, as the continued construction of all these impotent colliders demonstrates.

    “The world is still here! We must build a bigger collider!”
    “But what if the circle’s the problem? Why not a figure eight?”

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    April 11, 2008

    The uncertainty is disturbing, but there is a way to empirically test the idea that the Earth will be sucked into a tiny black hole.

  8. #8 Chuck Banaszewski
    April 16, 2008

    HARD-ON colliders…doesn’t everyone have one…actually this sounds like the premise for a Dan Brown novel…If they blow up the world and create a Black Hole…that would suck…

  9. #9 proofreader
    April 18, 2008
  10. #10 sudharsan
    September 17, 2008

    good for humanity