Physics experiments to get more and more dangerous


Physicists at Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) had a safety meeting to discus the possibility that their experiment planned for 10th October might accidentally create black holes, at a rate of 1 per second. If created it isn’t sure what these micro-black holes will do. Some say the black-holes should be unstable due to their small size, and should disappear due to emitting Hawking-radiation. Also they could fly off into space at the speed of light. However others fear that due to the design of the collider, as two opposing beams with the same speed, the black-holes will have lower velocity and could be caught by the earth’s gravity. Another concern was that the gamma rays emitted by unstable black holes could start of chain reactions leading to similar effect to a nuclear bomb destroying the facility.

Collision of cars
An inelastic collision, at low speeds and high temperatures it is unlikely to create exotic particles for long.

Under standard theories, such an energy to produce a micro black hole is orders of magnitude greater than that which can be produced on Earth in particle accelerators such as the large hadron collider (LHC) (maximum about 1.15 × 106 GeV). However the multiple dimensions postulated in string theory mean is it possible that the gravity can be many orders of magnitude stronger at smaller distances (when particles are thrown together by very high energies).

Others have questioned the basic assumptions of the CERN program in quantum gravity, questioning the existence of Hawking radiation, it is only the quantum assumptions which lead to a crisis at the Planck mass. Using classical general relativity, a black hole could in principle be arbitrarily small. So, it remains a possibility that a stable micro black hole could be created at the large hadron collider, or that they are created in nature by high-energy impacts, only to zip through earth at nearly the speed of light.

It’s very unfortunate that there are already experiments planned to investigate the properties of these micro-black holes. The GLAST satellite launched on 11th June, after calibration it was due to be gathering data by mid-August, and subsequently renamed after Enrico Fermi. Measurements should be able to prove or reject the Hawking Radiation theory. This should be critical for determining the safety of the Large Hadron Collider as discussed above.

Hawking Radiation should be detectable using GLAST/Fermi telescope
Hawking Radiation should be detectable using GLAST/Fermi telescope, here a black hole takes in matter and spews gamma radiation into the galaxy.

In July, the Large Hadron Collider Safety Assessment Group (LSAG) was writing that the current safety arguments are not valid proof of safety. Micro black holes might be created by the Large Hadron Collider, they might not evaporate, they might grow quickly and we have not been damaged by cosmic rays because cosmic rays pass harmlessly through Earth. CERN doesn’t publicise this information and also tells the public that a new safety report has been completed, and was finally published in September 2008 Review of the safety of LHC collisions. The report makes the conclusion that if Hawking radiation is not going to be omitted, it is estimated that any micro-black holes caught by the earth’s gravity will take around 1 billion years to become accreted.

A legal complaint before US Federal Court in Hawaii demanded 4 months to review this safety report and a permanent injunction if safety can not be assured to within reasonable industry standards. The united state’s department of energy (DOE) asked for summary dismissal of the case, a similar case was raised in the European court of human rights, citing the rights of citizens in the 27 member states to exist, was eventually dismissed. Similar complaints have been made against large particle accelerators by the same people previously, I think they are doing a great service in challenging the science behind the safety of these massive programs. Obviously these accelerators will also carry a degree of unknown risk by there very nature, it’s possible that one day such an experiment can destroy the earth, but no one will be left to blame the scientists responsible. No were in the universe are the same conditions of nature re-created as in the extremely cold particle accelerator were matter is focused accelerated and collided repeatedly.

Any concerns over the safety could be dismissed by waiting for the results of the GLAST/Fermi satellite’s investigation of Hawking radiation. The standard model has so much experimental evidence against it, can we really use it to design experiments which could potentially destroy the earth, and should we be paying so much (8 billion dollars) to fund the particle physics gravy train?

The detector chamber for the large hadron collider, protons will smash into each other here with the possibility of creating the missing Higgs Boson, which might explain why gravity is weaker than other forces.

Some References
Wikipedia article on Safety of LHC
CERN courier article The case for mini black holes
Adam D. Helfer, “Do black holes radiate?” arXiv:gr-qc/0304042
Basic Concepts in Relativity and Early Quantum Theory, R. Resnick; Physics Parts I & II, Haliday and Resnick, 1966, Chapter 9, Conservation of Linear Momentum
Review of the safety of LHC collisions
Scientists receive death threats
The Large Hadron Collider: how the press demeans science

An Addendum

Interest in this story continues today, Monday 8th September, I believe there is good media representation at CERN, the BBC’s most read story today is one trivialising the criticisms Why the fascination with the end of the world? the comments are particularly worth reading for the spectrum of responses.

Others have been coming forward to say the money could be better spent on research into global warming. It was reported yesterday that former government science advisor, Sir David King, was saying money should be spent on climate change research rather than particle physics at CERN (the British contribution was 500 Million pounds, the largest amount for single item science project).

There are people who have serious concerns about the LHC – these concerns should be addressed seriously, not trivialised by association with crank groups from the past.
Brendan Carton, Galway, Ireland

As I understand it the world as we know it has already ended and we are now bits of binary code in a computer program.
Peter Baines, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, UK

The psychology of eschatology is interesting, but so too is that of the conservative who mocks predictions of catastrophe in order to argue that no large-scale disaster is possible. The Black Death was said by some to mark the end of the world; it wasn’t. But it was rather serious. We do need to be prepared for extreme events.
Mr Henderson, London, UK

According to Stephen Hawkings the chance that the the LHC has enough energy to create micro-black holes is less than 1%, as reported by the BBC’s Today programme, Hawkings would be happy to be wrong, if the Hawking radiation is observed he would be highly likely to receive a Nobel Prize.

Prince Charles is yet to make any comment.


11 Responses

  1. I say take risk without it we will never know what we could have known
    we are only human. To find our existence we shouldn’t fear cause what would be the difference if i died from a heart attack or a drunk driver smashing into me or a comet or asteroid hitting the earth either way we die at least before I died I would like to know why I existed and we can start by this experiment take advantage of our gift, our brain, no other species that we know of can do what these brilliant scientist can do.

  2. Dear Victor, thanks for your comment, I just want to suggest that the risk of the experiment isn’t really answered by the Physicists, if they delayed the switch on they should be able to show that it is completely safe. Either prove it wont create these black holes, or that they wont be trapped by the earths gravity, or that they aren’t stable. If they wait we should be able to confirm the existence of Hawking radiation which is the mechanism which they say will cause the black holes to evaporate quickly.

    We should consider what all the scientists are saying before proceeding, not just the ones with all the money. They think it is risky enough to have safety meetings, they say the risks are small, but it is possible to avoid these risks completely.

  3. “We should consider what all the scientists are saying before proceeding, not just the ones with all the money.”

    Forget the money. Look at the expertise. Neither of the two (that’s all) scientists opposing the LHC have any expertise in the relevant field of physics. Their doomsday scenarios are mutually exclusive. Both have had their arguments totally demolished by people that actually know what they are talking about. I suspect one will just slink away. The other likes the limelight too much and is what one might call extremely eccentric.

    For background on these critics, check out my blog post “Large Hadron Collider: What’s the Risk?”

  4. Your article is much more informative than the reports in the media, but I don’t think it is very useful to focus on the personalities of the scientists making the criticisms. As I suggest above, if we are relying on Hawking Radiation to keep us safe some evidence of this radiation should be produced, does lead to the right sort of information. I look forward to having a look at their full report.

    I don’t know how Hawking reached his 1% chance of creating black holes, presumably he also has a hat to pull these numbers from.

  5. You are right but the truth is that we are not solely relying on Hawking radiation. There are other mechanisms that could provide decay channels for microscopic black holes. There is not enough space to develop these here. You can find more technical articles on or

    And i must report a slight misunderstanding. The truth is that according to General Relativity there can be arbitrarilly small black holes. However according to GR the energy needed to create such a BH is many orders of magnitude higher than those attained at LHC. So according to GR LHC cannot create a black hole. Theories that predict that BH could be created in LHC (lower energies) are based on extensions of GR that have not yet been proven.

    And standard model has open questions (related to the calculation and the nature of its constants) but no experimental evidence against it. After all if there existed evidence against the standard model it would not still be considered as a physical theory.

    Some of the things you wrote are based on physics, some others on the journalists’ conception of physics and the rest on rumours that were created outside the scientific community. If we don’t stay on scientific facts there is no possible way that we reach a conclusion. And the scientific facts say that there is no danger at all.

  6. Dear Spyros, I feel that the refutations given by the safety report of the LHC are inadequate. They admit in their report that there is a risk, which they characterise the risk as being acceptably small. My argument is that the risk can be avoided completely by waiting for the other ongoing experiment to confirm the existence of Hawking radiation.

    My aim above is to discuss the story and point out this alternative, you will notice this is a BLOG not a journal article. Please notice that truth isn’t decided by consensus so it is useless to appeal to hold the majority view of the scientific community, instead this should ring alarm bells that a proper case cannot be presented.

    We are safe for this weekend since the LHC has had to shutdown because of a coolant leak which meant the magnets for bending the beam would overheat. It it estimated to take 2 months to repair and resume the experiments.

  7. Mathew,

    according to succesfully tested physical theories that describe these phenomena (for BH creation it is General Relativity) there is no possibility that LHC will create black holes because it doesn’t have enough energy. The risk you mention was calculated according to other theories which have not yet been tested. Science cannot be based on non-tested theories otherwise there would be no scientific progress at all.

    And we cannot wait until Hawking radiation is observed. Simply because Hawking radiation might not exist. I will say again that hawking radiation is not the only possible decay method for black holes. There are other methods which can be described by tested physical theories.

    And a 3rd comment. I’m sure you’ve heard about cosmic radiation. There are particles in cosmic rays which have 100 million times more energy than the LHC beams. These have much greater probabilities to create BH than LHC. However since the creation of the earth none of these have created black holes.

  8. What was the experiment to test black hole creation? I didn’t even know one has been observed.

    You should say what the other decay methods are, and why you think they are more likely than Hawking Radiation.

    It’s not possible for you to argue that the physical theories are so well tested, when the point of the LHC is to test them.

    You’re third argument is bogus. We don’t know that black holes aren’t created by the cosmic rays. We might not detect any black hole that is created if its cross-section is so small. Since the energies of the cosmic rays are so much larger the black-holes are able to shoot off in to space, rather than being caught in the earths gravity (where they will orbit and eventually interact with the earth).

    Don’t you think it is possible that quite a lot of the matter in the universe is existing as micro-black holes, since the current theories to describe the growth of the universe have ‘missing mass’ which predict the existence of so much ‘dark matter’?

  9. Did a mini black hole cause the leak before it evaporated?

  10. you have now new info, a haifa experiment did a dumb hole and dident evaporate, fermi hasnt found them, so they dont evaporate. carpe diem.

  11. LHC is back up and running.

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