Easter Sunday was a very happy day for scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research because — after two long years of maintenance — the moment they have all been waiting for arrived: the restart of the world’s largest, most powerful particle accelerator: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
The LHC is a monster machine made of a long tunnel wrapped around in the shape of a 17-mile-wide underground circle. When it was completed in 2008, the scientific community saw it as a marvellous feat of engineering, but some saw it not as a miraculous achievement but a dangerous threat.
Months before the particle collider was scheduled to turn on for the first time in 2008, now-retired nuclear safety officer, Walter Wagner and Spanish journalist Luis Sancho filed a lawsuit against the organisations behind the monster machine. The plaintiffs were:
- U.S. Department of Energy
- Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
- National Science Foundation
- European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Needless to say, it takes a lot of guts, and perhaps a little insanity, to try and sue any one of those organisations, which are brimming with some of humanity’s brightest intellectuals, let alone all of them. Especially right before they finished a $US6 billion, 30-year project. In the two men’s defence, Wagner and Sancho were trying to save the world from, what they thought, was almost-certain annihilation.
Among their concerns was that the LHC had the power to produce a mini black hole that would, quite literally, swallow Earth. In their lawsuit they state:
“Eventually, all of Earth would fall into such growing micro-black-hole, converting Earth into a medium-sized black hole, around which would continue to orbit the moon, satellites, the ISS, etc.”
Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed because the men failed to prove a “credible threat to harm.” While the men’s fears were clearly misguided — Earth is still here after the LHC has run for multiple consecutive years — it’s important to understand why using the LHC for science is safe.
They have not spoken up since the lawsuit was dismissed in 2010.
Below are the three concerns Wagner and Sachos proposed in their lawsuit and why none of these should worry you.
Death by black hole
Black holes are extremely dense compact objects with a mass range anywhere between 4 to 170 million times the mass of our sun. While black holes are generally huge, it’s completely possible, at least in theory, that a small amount of matter, on the order of tens of micrograms, could be packed densely enough to make a black hole. This would be an example a microscopic black hole.
So far, no one has made or observed a microscopic black hole — not even the LHC. But before it was turned on for the first time in 2008, Wagner and Sancho feared that by accelerating subatomic particles to 99.99% the speed of light and then smashing them together, it would create a particle mash-up so dense as to spawn a black hole.
The physicists at CERN report that Einstein’s theory of relativity predicts that it’s impossible for the LHC to produce such exotic phenomena. But, Wagner and Sancho argued, what if Einstein was wrong?
Even so, another theory, developed by world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, predicts that even if a a microscopic black hole formed inside of the LHC , it would instantly disintegrate, posing no threat to Earth’s existence.
In 1974, Hawking predicted that black holes don’t just gobble stuff up, they also spit it out in the form of extremely high-energy radiation, now known as Hawking radiation. According to the theory, the smaller the black hole, the more Hawking radiation it expels into space, eventually wasting away to nothing. Therefore, a microscopic black hole, being the smallest kind, would disappear before it could wreak havoc and destruction. This could also by why we’ve never seen a micro black hole.
Death by strange matter
Strange matter is made up of individual, hypothetical particles, called strangelets, which are different from the normal matter that make up everything we see around us.
Wagner and Sancho worried that this strange matter could fuse with normal matter “eventually converting all of Earth into a single large ‘strangelet’ of huge size,” they write in their lawsuit.
However, the precise behaviour of strange matter, or even a single strangelet, is unclear, which is partly why these particles have been suggested as candidates for the mysterious material called dark matter the permeates the universe.
To support that theory, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, have been trying to create a strangelet particle with Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider since the turn of the century. So far, nothing that resembles a strangelet has popped up. And because of the energies and types of particles that the LHC collides, Brookhaven has a better chance of making this strange matter.
If it succeeded, the concern is that the strangelets would bind with normal matter in a runaway reaction that would transform you, me, and everything on Earth into a clump of strange matter. Whether we would survive such a transformation and how that would change things is anyone’s guess. But that unknown is scary enough.
Physicists at CERN, however, say that if Brookhaven succeeded in making a strangelet, its chances of interacting and binding with normal matter are slim:
“It is difficult for strange matter to stick together in the high temperatures produced by such colliders, rather as ice does not form in hot water,” they explain on their website.
Death by magnetic monopoles
In nature, magnets come with two ends — a north pole and a south pole. But in the late 19th Century physicist Pierre Curie, husband to Marie Curie, predicted that there’s no reason why a particle with just one magnetic pole could not exist.
More than a century later, however, this particle, called a magnetic monopole, has never been made in the lab or observed in nature. So, it’s purely hypothetical. But that didn’t stop Wagner from suggesting that a powerful machine like the LHC could make history by creating the first ever magnetic monopole that could destroy Earth.
“Such particle might have the ability to catalyze the decay of protons and atoms, causing them to convert into other types of matter in a runaway reaction,” he and Sancho wrote.
The theory that a monopole could destroy protons — the subatomic building blocks of all matter in the universe — is speculative at best, CERN physicists explain. But let’s say that theory is right. Well, these theories also predict that such a particle would have a certain mass, which happens to be too heavy for anything the LHC would create.
So, suffice it say: We’re safe.
“The continued existence of the Earth and other astronomical bodies therefore rules out dangerous proton-eating magnetic monopoles light enough to be produced at the LHC,” CERN physicists explain.
Once the LHC is turned back on, physicists will spend the next few months ramping it up to maximum power, which will be about twice the energy it had during its first run. That’s not going to change the fact that the chances of the LHC cooking up Earth-destroying mini black holes, strangelets, or magnetic monopoles are next-to-nothing.
If you’re still not convinced, or the slightest bit worried, check out CERN’s website regarding “The Safety of the LHC” where experts in astrophysics, cosmology, general relativity, mathematics, particle physics, and risk analysis have expressed their opinions on the machine’s safety.