Discovery or doom? Collider stirs debate
Chapter 2: Cutting through the hype over black holes and future benefits
By Alan Boyle
updated 5:03 p.m. ET, Mon., Sept. 8, 2008
Will the Large Hadron Collider save the world, or destroy it?
As the atom-smasher at Europe's CERN research center is readied for its official startup on Wednesday, researchers might wish that the general public was captivated by the quest for the Higgs boson, the search for supersymmetric particles and even the evidence for extra dimensions.
But if the feedback so far is any guide, the real headline-grabber is the claim that the world's most powerful particle-smasher could create microscopic black holes that some fear would gobble up the planet.
The black-hole scenario is even getting its day in court: Critics of the project have called for the suspension of work on the European collider until the scenario receives a more thorough safety review, filing separate legal challenges in U.S. federal court and the European Court of Human Rights.
The strange case of the planet-eating black hole serves as just one example showing how grand scientific projects can lead to a collision between science fiction and science fact. The hubbub also has led some to question why billions of dollars are being spent on a physics experiment so removed from everyday life.
Why do it?
Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist at the City College of New York, acknowledged that people often ask about the practical applications of particle physics. Even if physicists figure out how a particle called the Higgs boson creates the property of mass in the universe, how will that improve life on Earth?
"Sometimes the public says, 'What's in it for Numero Uno? Am I going to get better television reception? Am I going to get better Internet reception?' Well, in some sense, yeah," he said. "All the wonders of quantum physics were learned basically from looking at atom-smasher technology."
Kaku noted that past discoveries from the world of particle physics ushered in many of the innovations we enjoy today, ranging from satellite communications and handheld media players to medical PET scanners (which put antimatter to practical use).
"But let me let you in on a secret: We physicists are not driven to do this because of better color television," he added. "That's a spin-off. We do this because we want to understand our role and our place in the universe."
About those black holes ...
The black holes that may (or may not) be generated by the Large Hadron Collider would have theoretical rather than practical applications.
If the collider's detectors turn up evidence of black holes, that would suggest that gravity is stronger on a subatomic scale than it is on the distance scales scientists have been able to measure so far. That, in turn, would support the weird idea that we live in a 10- or 11-dimensional universe, with some of the dimensions rolled up so tightly that they can't be perceived.
Some theorists say the idea would explain why gravity is so much weaker than the universe's other fundamental forces — for example, why a simple magnet can match the entire Earth's gravitational force pulling on a paper clip. These theorists suggest that much of the gravitational field is "leaking out" into the extra dimensions.
"It will be extremely exciting if the LHC did produce black holes," CERN theoretical physicist John Ellis said. "OK, so some people are going to say, 'Black holes? Those big things eating up stars?' No. These are microscopic, tiny little black holes. And they’re extremely unstable. They would disappear almost as soon as they were produced."
Not everyone is convinced that the black holes would disappear. "It doesn't have to be that way," said Walter Wagner, a former radiation safety officer with a law degree who is one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. Despite a series of reassuring scientific studies, Wagner and others insist that the black holes might not fizzle out, and they fear that the mini-singularities produced by the Large Hadron Collider will fall to the center of the earth, grow larger and swallow more and more of Earth's matter.
Ellis, Kaku and a host of other physicists point out that cosmic rays in space are far more energetic than the collisions produced in the Large Hadron Collider, and do not produce the kinds of persistent black holes claimed by the critics. In the most recent report, CERN scientists rule out the globe-gobbling black holes and the other nightmares enumerated in the lawsuit, even under the most outlandish scenarios. Wagner remains unconvinced, however.
"I don't think the knowledge we are going to acquire by doing such an experiment outweighs the risk that we are taking, if we can't quantify that risk. ... We need to obtain other evidence," he said.
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