Discuss as:

Courts weigh doomsday claims

J. Pequenão / CERN / ATLAS
This artist's conception simulates the particle tracks that could be left behind by
the creation and decay of a black hole in the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS
detector. The researcher with a hardhat is shown only to give a sense of scale.

Critics who say the world's largest atom-smasher could destroy the world have brought their claims to courtrooms in Europe and the United States - and although the claims are getting further consideration, neither court will hold up next week's official startup of the Large Hadron Collider.

The main event took place today in Honolulu, where a federal judge is mulling over the federal government's request to throw out a civil lawsuit filed by retired nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner and Spanish science writer Luis Sancho.

Meanwhile, legal action is pending as well at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Last week, the court agreed to review doomsday claims from a group of professors and students, primarily from Germany and Austria. However, the court rejected a call for the immediate halt of operations at the LHC.

What it's all about
In the U.S. as well as the European lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that those involved in the particle collider's operation have not adequately addressed the idea that the LHC could create globe-gobbling microscopic black holes or other catastrophes such as matter-wrecking strangelets or magnetic monopoles. They're calling for further safety reviews to be conducted.

The defendants - including the U.S. Department of Energy as well as Europe's CERN particle-physics center - say such fears already have been knocked down in a series of safety reports. The reports, drawn up by leading researchers in high-energy physics, note that cosmic-ray collisions are many times more energetic and prevalent than the collisions expected at the LHC. If the LHC were capable of creating cosmic catastrophes, they would already have been seen many times over in the wider universe, even in the unlikeliest circumstances, the researchers say.

Past "big-bang machines" have faced similar legal challenges, but the worries are emerging anew because the LHC will smash protons together at energies seven times higher than the current world record, held by the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois.

Physicists hope to gain new insights into mysteries of the universe ranging from dark matter to supersymmetric particles. The main quarry is an as-yet-undetected subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, also known as the "God Particle." The Higgs boson is the only fundamental particle predicted by current theory that has not yet been found. If it does not exist, that would add weight to alternative theories that depend on extra dimensions of space-time.

Theorists say the LHC could create microscopic black holes - or, more accurately, subatomic knots of ultra-concentrated energy - only if there are extra dimensions. Current theory also dictates that these knots would unravel instantly. The LHC's critics take issue with that particular claim.

In any case, the collider won't be in a position to create any type of black hole for months. The scheduled Sept. 10 turn-on would circulate only one beam of protons around the LHC's 17-mile-round ring at low energy. The first low-energy collisions won't occur until at least a month from now, and the device won't achieve its top collision energy until next year. That's why the courts are not rushing to rule on the critics' claims.

What's happening in court
Both sides in the federal lawsuit contributed to a flurry of filings in the days before today's hearing in District Judge Helen Gillmor's Honolulu courtroom.

The federal government's attorneys, representing the Energy Department, wanted Gillmor to dismiss the suit or render a summary judgment against Wagner and Sancho - on the grounds that the suit's outcome won't affect operations at the European collider, and that the plaintiffs missed their deadlines for legal filings.

In response, the plaintiffs insisted that their challenge was timely and said the defendants' past assurances did not ease their concerns about the safety issues. They called for the case to continue toward trial, with a tentative date of June 2009 already scheduled.

In the next legal volley, Bruce Strauss, who was the Energy Department's associate program manager for the LHC construction project, took aim at Wagner's credentials as well as his arguments. Strauss wrote that assessing the LHC's safety would "require competency in the field of high-energy physics, not health physics or nuclear medicine." Strauss also questioned Wagner's claims about his role in research, citing recent searches of scientific literature.

Strauss said that the federal lawsuit would have no effect on LHC operations because the federal role in building the collider ended a while ago. He said federal funds were now slated to go only toward supporting research activities at the LHC, to the tune of $10 million a month.

On the safety issue, Strauss said CERN's recent report, which was reviewed by outside experts, covered all the realistic scenarios for out-of-control black holes as well as the other doomsday scenarios - and he pointed out that experts at the American Physical Society recently endorsed the report's conclusions. Two Nobel laureates (Sheldon Glashow and Frank Wilczek) as well as a prominent Harvard physicist (Richard Wilson) have also taken the government's side as friends of the court.

Wagner responded to the government's volley just before today's hearing with yet another round of documents. He contended that the LHC would search for strangelets, insisted that yet-to-be-published research "absolutely refutes" claims that the LHC is safe and complained about Strauss' "ad hominem" attacks - while adding a little hominem of his own. For example, Wagner said Strauss once was searching for evidence of magnetic monopoles himself and was "apparently rankled that my work was successful, while his was not."

If this sounds to you like a blizzard of documents, you're not alone. At today's hearing, Judge Gillmor took both sides to task for filing so many disjointed documents and for failing to follow the local rules of the court, Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames told me. (I've left a phone message with Wagner to get his side of the story.)

Gillmor took the case under advisement and will decide whether or not to dismiss the case at a later, not-yet-determined time. If the case goes forward, the next step would be to consider the plaintiffs' requests for a preliminary injunction against LHC operations as well as for a summary judgment against CERN.

Will the judge weather yet another storm of paperwork? Maybe not. "She doesn't want any more filings without her permission," Ames told me.

Update for 6:50 p.m. ET Sept. 3: In the wake of Tuesday's 52-minute hearing, Judge Gillmor agreed with the federal government's claim that it is immune from any legal action based on European legal documents (specifically, the European Council's Precautionary Principle and the European Commission's Science and Society Action Plan).

She also denied the request to enter a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the three physicists because she received no legally admissible evidence (such as an affidavit) that the physicists were actually involved in the filing.

Update for 7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 6: The transcript of the Hawaii hearing, provided to me by Wagner, sheds more light on Judge Gillmor's thinking. No. 1 is that she's taking the case seriously. At one point in the proceedings she took Wagner to task for filing some documents after the deadline, but added this:

"I'm not going to strike your filings because, while it is difficult to make our way through all of these documents that are quasi-appropriate, the nature of the issue raised is too important for the court to strike them just as a matter of course."

Gillmor focused on the legal process rather than the minutiae of scientific theory: Was the Energy Department required to address the doomsday scenario in an environmental impact statement? Has the statute of limitations for that requirement expired, now that the federal money is finished spending money for LHC construction (but is still supporting U.S. researchers involved in LHC experiments)? How much should the federal government be held accountable for activities in Europe? Is the United States a partner or a mere observer at CERN?

In an occasionally tart exchange with Justice Department attorney Andrew Smith, the judge discussed whether Wagner and Sancho had the proper standing to sue:

Smith: "OK, let's assume that there was a NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] obligation, and maybe there's a NEPA document out there, maybe there's not. But we don't even need to get there. Plaintiffs' complaint says they have to be injured by this project. Their only claim to injury..."

Gillmor: "... is that the world might blow up, and so we shouldn't get concerned about that. You're right. Why was I even considering it? Mr. Smith, I mean, I really find that, you know, I don't know if there's anything to this case, but that's just not a great direction to be going."

Smith: "I'm not following you. I mean, if their only claim to injury is that the world's ..."

Gillmor: "That they might die."

Smith: "Right."

Gillmor: "Yes."

Smith: "So they have to show that that's a credible injury. Is it actually going to happen? I can't just go into federal court and say, you know, 'the United States is participating with Israel to launch a nuclear missile, satellite that has nuclear material in it, and that nuclear material might land on my house in Albuquerque. They didn't do NEPA. I have standing.' That's what this case is about."

Gillmor: "I understand what you just said, that hypothetical, but that's not his [Wagner's] hypothetical. His hypothetical ... I mean, and you know, his hypothetical is that the world would be made into a, you know, hard iron rock, which is different than 'I might be an unintended casualty of something that's happening half around the world - way around the world, but the person next door wouldn't be.'"

Gillmor said her first task would be to figure out whether she had jurisdiction over whatever was happening at the Large Hadron Collider. "Right now I don't know if it should even be in this courtroom. ... If there's no basis for me to be making a decision about this, I'm not in charge of supervising what the federal government does," she said.

The judge is now considering these issues, and in the meantime she told both sides to cool it with the voluminous filings. She noted that the papers already stacked up to measure more than a foot high. "I don't want any more of these raining declarations that I am receiving in these various filings," she said.

Update for 7:52 p.m. ET Sept. 6: On Friday, the government added to Gillmor's stack (with her go-ahead) by lodging its opposition to the plaintiffs' motion for a default judgment against CERN. As expected, the government said that the court lacked jurisdiction over CERN, and that there was no evidence CERN was served in accordance with international procedure.

The government urged the judge to turn down the plaintiffs' request for an injunction against CERN, saying that their claims of potential injury were based on "unfounded and incredibly speculative doomsday scenarios that are not supported by the scientific evidence but only on plaintiffs' 'expert' opinions that they are not qualified to give."

Update for 11:35 p.m. ET Sept. 12: The hearing on the motion for a default judgment against CERN has been rescheduled for Oct. 14 at the plaintiffs' request.

Past chapters in the doomsday saga: