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Big-bang battle plan set

Salvatore Di Nolfi / EPA
A visitor snaps a picture of the Large Hadron Collider's underground
beamline during an open house in April, which was the last opportunity
for the public to see the facility before the scheduled start of operations.

The schedule is taking shape for the startup of the world's biggest particle-smasher — and for the lawsuit seeking to shut it down.

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit have served the federal government with a summons, and Justice Department lawyers are due to respond by June 24. One of the other parties in the case, Europe's CERN particle-physics center, is supposed to be served this week in Switzerland, according to Walter Wagner, one of the plaintiffs.

CERN's Large Hadron Collider is gearing up to slam protons together at energies that have not yet been studied on Earth. The peak energy of 14 trillion electron volts approaches levels seen in the first microseconds after the big bang - which is why the collider has been nicknamed the "Big Bang Machine."

Wagner and his co-plaintiff, Luis Sancho, are worried that when the collider reaches full power, it could create black holes or strangelets that would grow and gobble up our planet.

Physicists at CERN and the world's other top-level research facilities have been saying for years that that's mere science-fiction silliness. Nevertheless, Wagner, Sancho and other critics continue to sound the alarm. They want operations at the collider to be put on hold for at least four months, pending further safety reviews that would address the black-hole question and other potential risks.

Among other defendants, the lawsuit names the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and Fermilab in Illinois, the laboratory that is playing the lead U.S. role in the Large Hadron Collider. The Justice Department is handling the federal government's legal response, and Justice spokesman Andrew Ames said he would not comment on the suit until the response is filed next month.

Federal attorneys are likely to focus their defense on relatively narrow legal issues – for example, claiming that the government as well as government-funded scientists have complied with environmental guidelines, or that the LHC project is not subject to U.S. regulations, or that the lawsuit should be thrown out because of technicalities. That's how Wagner's challenges to previous particle-collider experiments have been handled.

Although anything can happen (even the sudden eruption of a rogue black hole in the courtroom), I wouldn't expect the attorneys' brief to focus on the globe-gobbling question. That element of the controversy will be addressed in a safety report currently being reviewed by CERN and outside experts. The report, which is said to underline and amplify previous conclusions that the LHC is safe, could be released by the end of this month, CERN spokesman James Gillies told me.

The technical report is currently undergoing a final review by CERN's scientific policy committee as well as outside experts, and Gillies is writing up a version in easier-to-understand language for the benefit of us non-physicists.

First beams in July?
Meanwhile, CERN's startup schedule is coming into better focus as well: The LHC team is due to start cooling down the last sectors of the collider's beamline to near absolute zero on Wednesday, with the expectation that cooldown will be complete by mid-June, Gillies said. That would clear the way for a final round of equipment testing, with the first attempt to inject proton beams into the collider "likely to be in the second half of July," he said.

The exact date would be set four to six weeks in advance – leaving enough time to plan a big media event around the first beam injection. Gillies said the first injection will provide a convenient hook for coverage, including a live BBC broadcast of the turn-on around 9:30 a.m. CET (3:30 a.m. ET) on the appointed day. However, he stressed that the beam injection was just one step in a months-long commissioning process.

"It's not like launching a space shuttle or anything like that," Gillies said.

The first low-power proton collisions would come later in the summer or fall, leading up to a VIP ceremony on Oct. 21. The collider won't reach its full power until next year, after CERN's winter break. Any legal questions should be resolved by the time the Large Hadron Collider gets anywhere close to post-big-bang energies. At least that's what the Justice Department and CERN would expect.

Weighing the risks
For his part, Wagner wants to see the safety report first. Despite all the expert claims that the LHC will be safe, the former nuclear health physicist insisted that nothing he's seen so far has absolutely ruled out the black-hole doomsday scenario.

"For all I know, they will come up with some other novel argument that proves this can't happen. We want to see an argument that absolutely proves it ... because otherwise it ends up being [a statement that] 'we have no way of calculating.' And that, to me, is a scary proposition."

I should emphasize here that most scientists, even the ones who think way outside the box, are not scared. Here's how theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, the author of "Physics of the Impossible," put it to me back in February:

"I'm going to sleep well when that machine is turned on, because I know that cosmic rays have more energy than the Large Hadron Collider, and you don't see black holes from outer space. These are microscopic in size, and they don't last long."

Of course, there are always counterarguments, and counter-counterarguments. For a sampling, you can check out LHC Concerns and the BackReaction blog, among many other resources. Then you can weigh in with your own comments below.