Is Large Hadron Collider a Doomsday Machine ?

The builders of the world’s biggest particle collider are being sued in federal court over fears that the experiment might create globe-gobbling black holes or never-before-seen strains of matter that would destroy the planet.

The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, is due for startup later this year at CERN’s headquarters on the French-Swiss border. It’s expected to tackle some of the deepest questions in science: Is the foundation of modern physics right or wrong? What existed during the very first moment of the universe’s existence? Why do some particles have mass while others don’t? What is the nature of dark matter? Are there extra dimensions of space out there that we haven’t yet detected?

Some folks outside the scientific mainstream have asked darker questions as well: Could the collider create mini-black holes that last long enough and get big enough to turn into a matter-sucking maelstrom? Could exotic particles known as magnetic monopoles throw atomic nuclei out of whack? Could quarks recombine into “strangelets” that would turn the whole Earth into one big lump of exotic matter?

Former nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner has been raising such questions for years – first about an earlier-generation “big bang machine” known as the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider, and more recently about the LHC.


  •  Runaway black holes: Some physicists said by 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.
  • 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.

The cosmic-ray argument has been applied to the black-hole and strangelet scenarios as well. If such dangerous things can be created, why haven’t they already eaten up Earth, along with other planets, stars or whole galaxies in the billions of years since the universe arose? To answer that question, Sancho and Wagner pose a counterargument: Perhaps cosmic-ray collisions really are creating tiny black holes or strangelets, but those little bits of doomsday zip by too fast to cause any trouble. In the LHC, they say, the bad stuff could hang around long enough to be captured by Earth’s gravity and set off a catastrophe.

In response, particle physicists are developing counter-counterarguments –  based on their theoretical work as well as data from astronomical observations and experiments at the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider. For instance, the physicists would say that enough of the doomsday particles still should have been captured by neutron stars or cosmic gas clouds to have an impact. No such impact has ever been seen. Therefore, no doomsday.

CERN spokesman James Gillies told  that a 2003 assessment of the doomsday scenarios was being updated with the new information. Release of that updated report – the one that Sancho and Wagner apparently have been waiting for – is “imminent”.


~ by arjunpandalam on August 16, 2008.

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