Black Holes Really Suck


"I am very angry that so much emphasis has been made on the possible ‘end of the world scenario’. I had an extremely upset 10-year-old son to comfort last night." So writes "Kim", of Hayes in the United Kingdom, to the BBC World Service. With characteristic nonchalance, the Beeb had been suggesting that humanity might annihilate itself in pursuing the origins of the universe — a case of lethal curiosity.

But what exactly happened in Switzerland yesterday? Much in the way of cryptic, abstract science, most of it indulgently speculative and all of it highly expensive. A 27-kilometre-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a colossal ring buried 300 feet beneath the Swiss-French border and the handiwork of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), "went live" on Wednesday morning 0730 GMT (yesterday evening, Australian time). The test was the first of a series of exercises scheduled before the facility becomes fully operational on 21 October, when high energy proton collisions can begin.

With these proton collisions, CERN hopes to find some of the missing matter in the universe, and maybe also see if it can find any observable basis for "string theory". The side-effects of such high-energy collisions are at the centre of "the end of the world" scenarios doing the rounds at the moment.

The LHC was designed to fire two beams of specific particles, known as hadrons, in opposing directions. Collisions between them would result, thereby releasing astonishing amounts of energy replicating the universe at the time of its birth. What sort of conditions are these? Possibly a mini blackhole, according to some, and temperatures approaching a trillion degrees centigrade. Preferably a sighting of the Higgs-Boson, or "God particle", the only standard model particle yet to be observed and responsible for giving other particles their mass and weight.

At a time of such excitement in the scientific world, it may seem mean spirited to count the cost of this facility. But the cost is so very high that it can’t really be avoided. While no one’s really sure quite what the collider will end up costing, it’s probably somewhere between $5.6-11.2 billion.

After so much money and 30 years of planning have gone into this extravaganza, scientists might, just might, get a bit closer to accurately theorising how the universe was created.

Much more was at stake here than the collision of hadrons and the manufacture of Earth’s very own, domesticated black hole. Those behind the "atom smasher", as the British paper, the Daily Telegraph, named it, had to face something far more earthly and human: legal challenges. The European Court of Human Rights has been in receipt of a lawsuit claiming that the replication of such conditions was suicidal. In more legal terms, it purportedly violated the right to life and right to private family life under the European Convention of Human Rights. An injunction was sought thereby depriving CERN from turning on the machine. Obviously that strategy didn’t work.

The concerns of the litigating parties are not those of pious fanatics who fear the onset of an apocalypse wrought upon us by an angry god. Otto Rössler, a German chemist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, was one of the key complainants. "CERN itself has admitted that mini black holes could be created when the particles collide, but they don’t consider this a risk."

Having made a few calculations of his own, Rössler argues that such holes will prove predatory and insatiable, growing exponentially like bacteria and "[eating]the planet from the inside". And how long does the chemist give us in his worst-case scenario? The earth could be literally sucked inside-out within four years of the mini black hole’s creation.

Not content with keeping this an all-European affair, environmentalists in Hawaii have decided to initiate their own suit (filed 21 March) in a US federal district court to compel their government to intervene. Walter L Wagner and Luis Sancho claim that the risks have been downplayed by CERN, who have failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The experiments might result in a ravenous black hole or a "strangelet" that might reduce the planet to a dense lump called "strange matter".

Why US laws should even interest a scientific body operating in Europe suggest a misguided sense of American legal reach. But the activists argue that that the focus must be necessarily universal. "[CERN] have got a lot of propaganda saying it’s safe," says Wagner, "but basically it’s propaganda".

It’s hard to see this action coming to anything. Getting CERN to appear in a dock in Hawaii would be quite another matter.

It will be several weeks before the first particles collide. Perhaps Earth will get its own resident, all-consuming black hole, or merely disintegrate into "strange matter". In that case, the first to know will include not only the enthusiastic scientists of CERN but the residents of Geneva.

Or perhaps the LHC will have just been an astonishingly expensive exercise in history gazing.

In this moment, before any results have started to emerge, we can even imagine another possibility — a "best case scenario", in which the research being carried out deep beneath Switzerland yields information that will somehow greatly improve the lives of people in the world, in this era. We can hope that in some way these experiments have a positive effect, equal to or greater than that which would have been achieved by otherwise redirecting the billions of dollars spent on this project.

That would really be something to celebrate.

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