Scientists neglect critics, saying the Large Hadron Collider, starting Sept 10,
could create Earth-swallowing black holes, mini black holes eating up the earth.
On Sept. 10, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, will switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — a $6 billion particle accelerator that will send beams of protons careening around a 17-mile underground ring, crash them into each other to re-create the immediate aftereffects of the Big Bang, and then monitor the debris in the hope of learning more about the origins and workings of the universe. Next week marks a low-power run of the circuit, and scientists hope to start smashing atoms at full power by the end of the month.
Critics of the LHC say the high-energy experiment might create a mini black hole that could expand to dangerous, Earth-eating proportions. On Aug. 26, Professor Otto Rossler, a German chemist at the Eberhard Karis University of Tubingen, filed a lawsuit against CERN with the European Court of Human Rights that argued, with no understatement, that such a scenario would violate the right to life of European citizens and pose a threat to the rule of law. Last March, two American environmentalists filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Honolulu seeking to force the U.S. government to withdraw its participation in the experiment. The lawsuits have in turn spawned several websites, chat rooms and petitions — and led to alarming headlines around the world (Britain's Sun newspaper on Sept. 1: "End of the World Due in 9 Days").
Should we be scared? No. In June, CERN published a safety report, reviewed by a group of external scientists, ruling out the possibility of dangerous black holes. It said that even if tiny black holes were to be formed at CERN — a big if — they would evaporate almost instantaneously due to Hawking Radiation, a phenomenon named for the British physicist Stephen Hawking, whose theories show that black holes not only swallow up the light, energy and matter around them, but also leak it all back out at an accelerating pace. According to Hawking, if tiny black holes occurred at CERN, they would evaporate before they got a chance to do any damage. (Even if Hawking's theories prove to be wrong — no one has yet witnessed black-hole evaporation — scientists at CERN say the LHC's collisions are already known to be harmless: an equivalent amount of energy is produced hundreds of thousands of times a day by cosmic rays colliding with the earth and other objects in the cosmos — always without incident.)
After taking in the results of CERN's report, the European Court rejected Rossler's request last week for an emergency injunction that would have stopped the LHC (it will still hear his lawsuit). The U.S. suit is pending, but CERN spokesman James Gillies said that even if it is successful the experiment will go ahead without U.S. participation.
"The U.S. court has no jurisdiction over our equipment. It could pull American scientists out of the experiment, but that would just be a great shame for them. The LHC presents no risk. What it does do is hold the promise of substantially enriching humanity by providing insight into the mysteries of the universe. It's a tremendously exciting time for physicists here and around the world," he said.