A Black Hole? In Switzerland?

Apr 1, 2008 8:34am

In a giant lab deep beneath the Alps, physicists have spent $8 billion and 14 years assembling a machine called the Large Hadron Collider, in which they hope to smash protons together to simulate the conditions right after the Big Bang. In the arcane world of particle physics, the collider, at a lab called CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) is hallowed ground.  This, to many scientists, is where the origins of the universe will most likely become plain. Just one minor detail: what if the collider, as it sends particles to pulverize each other at nearly the speed of light, just happens to swallow up the Earth and a fair amount of the universe around it? Two men, Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho, have filed suit in Federal District Count in Hawaii to stop the collider before it powers up this summer.  They say there’s a chance — small but not answered to their satisfaction — that CERN’s experiments could accidentally create a tiny Black Hole, or that the colliding particles could create new ones: "strangelets" in the parlance of particle physicists.  Neither of the plaintiffs is a scientist.  Mr. Wagner is a lawyer; Mr. Sancho lives in Spain.
Nearly every scientist who’s addressed the question says it’s far fetched at best, but in the interest of thoroughness, and perhaps good public relations, CERN convened a panel to discuss the matter.  Their report was due in January. Sancho and Wagner made their complaint on the grounds that CERN (the U.S. Energy Department is one of many international partners) had not filed an environmental impact statement.  Scientists from Europe are not obliged to show up at a court in Hawaii — but if the Earth were to be swallowed up in the course of the experiments, there would be an environmental impact on Hawaii. Mr. Wagner has been here before.  He brought suit against Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York’s Long Island, which was planning a related experiment in 1999.  I covered it.  I talked to Michio Kaku, a physicist at the City University of New York who has worked extensively in string theory, and Kaku, usually an animated speaker, turned deadpan.  "The amount of matter is so small that it can’t possibly create a black hole," he said.  The Brookhaven collider has been smashing gold ions since 2000.  Of course, if a black hole did suddenly consume us all, would we ever feel a thing?

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