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Twists in the doomsday debate

CERN
A simulation shows the
pattern of particles that
could be produced by a
microscopic black hole.


Preparations for starting up the world's largest atom-smasher on Sept. 10 are proceeding smoothly, but the legal tussle over whether it should be stopped is facing new twists. Look for Nobel laureates and diplomats to weigh in as a key federal court hearing nears.

The hearing is scheduled to begin in Hawaii on Sept. 2, just a week before the official startup of Europe's Large Hadron Collider. U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor will consider whether to dismiss a civil lawsuit claiming that the machine could destroy the world.

The plaintiffs in the case, former nuclear safety official Walter Wagner and Spanish science writer Luis Sancho, say the officials in charge of the LHC at the CERN particle-physics center have not fully considered the possibility that the collider could create globe-gobbling black holes or other catastrophes of cosmic proportions.

The defendants, including CERN and the U.S. Department of Energy, say the doomsday worries are pure science fiction - and have cited a series of safety reports concluding that the Large Hadron Collider poses no global threat.

Both sides are getting their briefs in order as the hearing date approaches - and picking up new allies (or new foes, depending on how you see the issue) along the way. Here are several developments of note:

CERN in default, or off the hook?
Some observers have wondered whether a European organization such as CERN can rightly be held accountable by a private party in U.S. court over activities that will be happening exclusively in Europe. Wagner and Sancho say it can, and they hired a process-server to deliver legal documents to CERN's headquarters on the French-Swiss border. When CERN didn't respond, they filed a motion seeking a default judgment against the organization.

However, last week the Swiss government sent the court a letter through diplomatic channels, saying that the document drop-off did not officially make CERN a party to the case. According to Swiss charge d'affaires Alexander Wittwer, the only way CERN could be served would be if the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland delivered the documents to the Swiss foreign ministry.

The Justice Department, which is handling the federal government's defense in the case, had no comment today on how the procedure might play out. A hearing on the plaintiffs' motion for a default judgment has been scheduled on Sept. 25, and the issue is sure to come up at that time - that is, if the case hasn't been resolved by then.

Nobel laureates weigh in
The defendants' side of the story is about to get a high-powered boost from two Nobel Prize-winning physicists and a well-known colleague of theirs from Harvard. The scientists are seeking to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, saying that they have "special knowledge which they believe will assist the court."

The three physicists are Boston University's Sheldon Glashow (Nobel in Physics, 1979), MIT's Frank Wilczek (Nobel in Physics, 2004) and Harvard's Richard Wilson (an expert on high-energy physics, nuclear safety and risk analysis).

"All three of them had done work with respect to the accelerator at Brookhaven, which Walter Wagner challenged back in the day," said Martin Kaufman, an attorney for the New York-based Atlantic Legal Foundation who is handling the filing.

Kaufman was referring to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, or RHIC, an earlier "big bang machine" that Wagner claimed would create a catastrophe. No catastrophe has occurred to date, eight years after RHIC's startup.

In their new brief, the physicists say that questions about the LHC's safety "have been raised, studied and answered decisively," and that the plaintiffs "have apparently not educated themselves about the extensive analysis that has been done."

Kaufman tried to get the physicists involved in the case as friends of the court last week, but it turned out that he lacked the legal standing to do so. Kaufman told me he was now in the process of getting the official go-ahead, known in legalese as "pro hac vice" permission.

In the meantime, an initial draft of the brief wound up in the court docket with some scientific errors: For example, the draft called the LHC a linear accelerator (it isn't) and said that the collider wouldn't smash nuclei together (it will). That drew Wagner's derision: "They're just being way off the wall on the facts," he told me.

Kaufman said Glashow independently caught mistakes in the draft document, and the errors will be fixed in the final copy.

When I spoke with Glashow, he said he hoped the friend-of-the-court brief would add an extra bit of gravity to the legal proceedings - and lead to the speedy dismissal of a "frivolous" lawsuit.

"It's wasting lots of time and effort to argue against this, but I think it's important to dispose of this as soon as possible," he told me.

Dueling documents
If the case goes forward, there will likely be a flurry of scientific papers cited by both sides. Glashow and the other would-be friends of the court cite one yet-to-be-published paper titled "Exclusion of Black Hole Disaster Scenarios at the LHC." The three German physicists behind the research look at the different scenarios for the growth of black holes and contend that the collider couldn't put a black hole on a world-threatening course.

Meanwhile, Wagner's retort to the friends of the court cites another unpublished paper titled "On the Potential Catastrophic Risk From Metastable Quantum-Black Holes Produced at Particle Colliders." This paper, written by German astrophysicist Rainer Plaga, contends that tiny black holes could conceivably emit harmful radiation soon after they were produced, and that such phenomena would "remain undetectable in astrophysical observations."

Wagner's most recent filings also cite warnings about the LHC's risks from German chemist Otto Rössler. Those warnings have gotten so much press lately that a group of leading quantum physicists in Germany, known as the Committee for Elementary Particle Physics, recently issued a letter countering Rössler's claims.

"There is no way that the LHC will produce black holes capable of swallowing up the Earth," the letter read, according to a report on Spiegel Online. "This claim is based on extremely well tested theories of physics and on observations of the cosmos."

The University of Wuppertal's Peter Mättig told Spiegel Online that he didn't think many people took the doomsday fears seriously. "But it is notable how often we have been asked about the problem," he said. "And we especially want to refute those, like Dr. Rössler, who try to use science to back up their claims."

Even as the hearing date nears on the topics of black holes, strangelets and magnetic monopoles, Wagner told me he is gearing up for a new challenge to LHC operations, on the grounds that the builders haven't fully considered the possibility that a wayward beam of protons could touch off an explosive "fusion propagation wave."

CERN says the LHC is designed to cope with particle beams that go astray. Here's how the question is addressed in the organization's file of frequently asked questions:

"... The beam of particles has the energy of a Eurostar train traveling at full speed, and should something happen to destabilize the particle beam there is a real danger that all of that energy will be deflected into the wall of the beam pipe and the magnets of the LHC, causing a great deal of damage. The LHC has several automatic safety systems in place that monitor all the critical parts of the LHC. Should anything unexpected happen (power or magnet failure, for example) the beam is automatically 'dumped' by being squirted into a blind tunnel where its energy is safely dissipated. This all happens in milliseconds - the beam, which is traveling at 11,000 circuits of the LHC per second, will complete less than three circuits before the dump is complete."

To research his claims, Wagner is reaching back to the 1940s, the golden age of nuclear paranoia, when Edward Teller and two other physicists wrote a report discussing the idea that nuclear bombs could set Earth's atmosphere on fire. (They concluded it wasn't possible because the bombs weren't powerful enough.) The long-classified report, known as LA-602, recently came up for discussion on the Overcoming Bias blog.

You might get the impression from all this that Wagner just doesn't like the LHC, no matter what anyone says. "It's not that I don't like it," he insisted. "In fact, I think it's wonderful ... if it's done safely."

Will it all be over in a couple of weeks? Or will it just be starting? Feel free to add your insights below - but do try to make them insightful, OK?

Update for 1:10 p.m. ET Aug. 20: Symmetry Breaking's David Harris points to a fresh explanation of the black-hole controversy, penned by Michael Peskin from the Stanford Linear Accelerator for APS Physics and titled "The End of the World at the Large Hadron Collider?" Harris writes that "Peskin's viewpoint summarizes the main arguments admirably clearly."

More from the frontiers of physics:

  • From Oak Ridge National Laboratory: America's fusion future ... Under the neutron microscope.

  • From the ITER project: Fusion when? ... Fusion's fortress.

  • From Canada's TRIUMF lab: Inside the supernova machine.