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Bust Open That Black Hole! April 3, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life, politics, press, science.

I really didn’t want to say something about this article. Actually, at first I wondered if it was just an excuse to show a truly awesome picture I wasn’t going to write anything. But then it started showing up on tech blogs, it rose to near the top of the New York Time’s most emailed articles. And non-physics friends of mine started asking what I thought about it. And then I saw some of the comments left on the article at the Herald Tribune’s version of the article (read them – it is worth it). I agree with Peter Woit: “it’s unclear why the story deserves any attention” However, I can hold out only so long.

Here is what I think: this article has the legs for reasons similar to why ID and Creationists are able to push the “evolution is only a theory” so effectively.

If you don’t have time to read the article: Wagner (ex physics researcher, lives in Hawaii) and Sancho (author, researcher on time theory (!?), lives somewhere in Spain) are suing Fermilab, the Department of Energy, and CERN to prevent the LHC from being turned on. Their’s is a doomsday worry: a small black hole or something similar will be created in the center of one of the detectors and will quickly expand to eat up the whole universe. Including us. I actually think that I’ve seen Wagner. One day, when I was a graduate student at Fermilab, I remember seeing a collection of people protesting outside the Batavia gate. I didn’t stop, but some friends did. It was someone from Hawaii who was worried we were going to end the universe. I don’t remember the name, but I suspect it was Wagner.

Now, in the evolution and creationism debate we scientist types call evolution a theory. In science it doesn’t get much more iron clad than that – pretty much the top of the heap. Note that we very carefully do not call it a fact. The reason is that science is always looking to improve the answers. We may have a model that fits all of our observations – but that isn’t to say that we’ve not missed something thus will need to extend the model or theory at a later time to account for new observations. Scientists are very careful about declaring the limits of their knowledge, and are very reluctant to go out on a limb and make a statement for which they do not have supporting evidence. That is part of the reason why we don’t call evolution a fact.

Now, lets go back to the article. There are lots of papers talking about mini-black holes and their possible production at the LHC. So far no one has seen any evidence of a black hole generated at any of the operating accelerators. But can you get any scientist to declare: “Absolutely, under no circumstances, ever will there be a black hold like this produced.”? I doubt it. If you asked a particle physicsts if they were worried about it – I don’t know of any that would be. Most would love to be at CERN, in fact, when the LHC starts up. I’d love to be there, but I may be teaching instead.

There is another aspect in this – risk evaluation. For example, it is much more dangerous to drive in your car than fly in an airplane. That is the raw science (statistics, whatever) of it. Yet we fear flying. When it comes to something like this how do you evaluate the risk? There is no way a non-scientist can do it themselves. The more science literacy there is the better people will understand the language that scientists use, but… And there is no way you would want to limit scientific endeavors and research to the list of topics that the non-scientist can easily understand! Ahhh… outreach!

Obligatory joke: fear not; us particle physicists will be first to pay if we’re wrong. 😉

But you have to admit — that is one amazing picture of CMS! These large detectors are stunning. I think someone should gather up the copyrights for some of these pictures and make a lulu.com book or something like that.



1. MIke M - April 4, 2008

Heard this intro on BBC as I was driving to cern yesterday: “If scientists create a black hole that destroys the earth, who do you sue?” I particularly enjoy the order of operations there…

2. gordonwatts - April 4, 2008

Did you see Gail Collin’s column (in the nytimes)? Where she rates various disasters in the world on a scale from “no biggie” to “LHC has a bad day”. 🙂

3. Luci - April 4, 2008

I was just happy that no one asked me anything about this! I think some people are trying to catch the publicity train.

4. Nate - April 5, 2008

If the LHC safety reports are done in a reasonable way, though, couldn’t the probability of a stable black hole being formed by the LHC be shown to be really small? And wouldn’t that be the end of the story?

5. gordonwatts - April 5, 2008

Hi Luci – These two guys that are doing it — at least the one from Hawaii (the other guy I’m not familiar with) have been doing it too long to be in it just for the publicity I think (!?). I think he really believes this.

Nate — as far as I know, this has been done. At least, when I saw some of these papers back when Fermilab was being protested. But you can never put it at zero. After all, our job is to invent all the possible senarios that could occur at the LHC. Sometimes it is hard to evaluate exactly what the probability of a certian scenario is exactly – I remember a well known model builder saying “I think the chances of this happeningn are about 10-14 – so we should definately explore it” [note: “this” refered to a totally different theory] – there is just no way to know without looking. And while some people might think 10-14 is good enough, some people think 0 is not enough. I am not familiar with any phycisist who thinks there is any chance of this happening. Certianly not enough that they would not want to be around the LHC when it starts.

6. Anonymous - April 6, 2008

I think the standard argument is that cosmic ray interaction energies are routinely orders of magnitude greater center of mass energies than LHC collisions, and thus if black holes occurred, we would thus eons ago have been annihilated. This argument is correct (the counter-argument of black holes at rest vs relativistic isn’t valid, we would a) have seen evidence of relativistic black holes in high energy cosmic rays, and b) black holes at the LHC would not in fact be produced at rest. This is beside the fact that micro black holes would evaporate away in under a nanosecond due to Hawking radiation. So we can safely put the chance at 0, not 10^-14 or 10^-30, but a big round 0.

7. gordonwatts - April 7, 2008

Anon — yes — exactly true. That argument is being made all over the place right now. The second half I agree with. But what about those cosmic rays. If the cross section for this type of black hole is just _REALLY_ _REALLY_ small – so over these billions of years we’ve been lucky enough not to roll the dice incorrectly…

8. pradipta - April 10, 2008

I have no commet on above mirror matter. But I like to say about “space mirror” which is grandest mirror complitely covered round our live atomsphere.

From the ancestral time the world space research established on blind theory. We although demand that we have discovered lots of mysteries viz. milk ways, galaxies, nebulas, white drafts, black holes etc., in real they are creation of space mirror. SPACE MIRROR is the truth and hidden mystery of the space. Since we are unknown about space mirror, our research has diverted from original truth and we have spent lots of time and money behind the false truth.

It can not explain in short. Therefore it invites to visit http://www.spacemirrormystery.com to know the truth.

9. Better in Essay Form « Life as a Physicist - April 15, 2008

[…] There is an essay by Dennis Overbye in the NYTimes today that is a much better discussion of the black hole flap that occurred a week ago, generated by a real article by Dennis. My favorite (laugh) quote: […]

10. Follow up on the CERN Black Hole Flap « Life as a Physicist - June 25, 2008

[…] Posted by gordonwatts in Pop Culture, press, science. trackback I’ve not said much (or here) about the lawsuit that seeks to halt the turn-on of the LHC because it may produce a […]

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