Experimental Physics Accidently End the World?
It's a scenario right out of a bad science
fiction movie: Scientists working in multi-billion dollar facility
tamper with the tools of creation and accidentally make a tiny
black hole. It sinks to the center of the earth, sucking in
matter furiously. In a few hours the core of the earth is consumed.
Earthquakes rock the planet and tsunamis sweep across the continents.
Then suddenly the world flattens out into the shape of a giant
Frisbee and then collapses in on itself. Out in space the astronauts
on the International Space Station watch in shock as they now
orbit a small, invisible black hole which they cannot see, but
has just consumed everyone and everything they know and love.
Left alone they contemplate their fate. Will they asphyxiate
when their air runs out first, or freeze to death when the power
So is the story even vaguely possible? Could scientists
accidently create a black hole in the laboratory that would
consume our planet?
When people think of black holes they usually
think of an object in space many times the mass of the sun whose
gravity is so powerful that even a beam of light cannot escape
its grasp. These monsters are the remnants of supernova explosions.
Anything that gets close to them, a space ship, a planet, or
even a star, gets sucked in by the black hole's gravity never
to be seen again. Scientists think there is a huge one a million
times the mass of the sun located right in the heart of our
The minimum size of these black holes in space
are at least three times the mass of the sun, so it would seem
to require a lot of matter to create a black hole. Physics theory
suggests, however, that it might be possible to create a microscopic
black hole by slamming two sub-atomic particles together at
extremely high velocities.
And that's what has some people worried. Particle
colliders, like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe and
the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in Brookhaven, New
York, are designed to do precisely that: slam sub-atomic particles
together at tremendous speeds and energies. These particle accelerators
usually include a ring-like "track" where the particles are
accelerated to speeds near that of the speed of light. In the
case of the LHC, the main ring is 17 miles in diameter and sends
particles down two parallel tracks in opposite directions. When
they have obtained enough energy, the particles are switched
onto different tracks that take them on a collision course so
they strike head on. The impact tears the particles apart into
their component pieces and some of the energy involved converts
into a hot, soup-like plasma of quarks and gluons. When it condenses
it becomes matter again with new types of particles being formed
as per Einstein's famous formula E=mc2.
This allows scientists to study the universe at it smallest
and most basic pieces.
Sub-atomic particles are subject to a number of
forces. Gravity is one we are very familiar with. Though it
is weak when compared to other forces, it is tenacious and operates
over great distances. Gravity causes all pieces of matter to
be "pulled" toward each other. The more massive the object is
and the closer the object is the more pull it has. That's why
something large like the earth attracts you. It is also why
(if you were standing on the moon, which is only 6th the mass
of earth) you would have only one 6th your weight.
Even small particles have gravity, but other forces
resist them being pulled very close together. If, however, you
slam them together with enough speed so you can get the particles
close enough, gravity will overcome the resistance and the two
particles will form a tiny, black hole. For many years it was
thought that the energy necessary to do this was many, many
times more than a particle accelerator could ever provide.
Scientists working on string theory (a theory
about how the universe is put together), however, have suggested
our universe has more than just the three familiar dimensions.
Extra, small dimensions might be curled up in the big three
that we can't see. If this is the case, as two objects get very
close to one another, their attraction due to gravity might
skyrocket. With this extra gravity helping, the LHC just might
have the necessary power to make microscopic black holes.
So if these theorists are right, can the LHC create
a black hole that will eventually eat the world? One of the
strongest arguments against this happening is something known
as Hawking Radiation. A few years ago the famous physicist
Stephen Hawking came to the conclusion that a black hole should
emit radiation. His arguments have become widely accepted and
this means that any black hole under a certain size should simply
"evaporate." Microscopic black holes made by a particle accelerator
would probably be around for only a fraction of a second before
they would disappear.
But what if Hawking is wrong and they don't evaporate?
Or don't evaporate as quickly as we think?
Most of the black holes created by a particle
accelerator would be moving so fast that they would simply leave
the planet and head out into space. Perhaps only one in a million
would be moving slow enough that it would get trapped by Earth's
What about one of those then? A tiny, black hole
would be pulled to the center of our planet. However, the gravity
it would have is so low it would rarely interact with other
matter. Physicist Greg Landsberg at Brown University believes
it would only absorb about one proton (the positive particles
at the center of atoms) every 100 hours. This growth rate is
so small that the tiny, black hole would only have absorbed
a few milligrams of Earth's matter by the time the end of the
As it is, the HLC has been operating for a while
now and so far nobody has seen any signs of any microscopic
black holes. This might be actually a bit of a disappointment
for those betting on string theory as it seems to make the possibility
of those extra dimensions less likely. The HLC will not be up
to full power till 2014; however, there is still a chance they
may be found during later testing.
Black holes aren't the only things that a particle
collider might make that could get out of control. Normal protons
consist of smaller particles known as quarks. Quarks come in
several flavors including "up," "down," and "strange." Regular
matter is composed of up and down quarks. Some exotic particles
(known as "strange matter") are thought to contain all three
types of quarks, but are usually unstable and decay quickly
into just regular matter. There is a theory, though, that if
a piece of strange matter were made large enough it could reach
a critical size (about the weight of 1000 protons) where it
would actually become more stable than regular matter. Such
an object would be called a "strangelet," though at this point
nobody is sure if such a thing could actually exist.
Regular matter coming into contact with a strangelet
might be converted itself into strange matter because the strange
matter would be more stable than regular matter. This has led
some people to theorize that if a particle collider could made
a large enough strangelet with a negative charge (so it would
be attracted to other matter), it might convert the whole planet
to strange matter which would be hot, dense and fatal to all
There is no proof, however, that the strange matter
theory is right. Or that large strangelets would actually be
stable. And if they were it would be very, very unlikely that
they would be negatively charged. If the theory is right, however,
it is likely that almost all neutron stars (collapsed versions
of stars not quite big enough to become black holes) should
actually be made of "strange" matter as naturally occurring
strangelets would have collided with them and converted them
to strange stars. No evidence for this exists. In fact, most
observations made so far suggest that neutron stars are just
made up of regular neutron matter.
In theory the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider
(RHIC) that started operating in Chicago in 2000 should have
been much more likely to produce strangelets then the LHC. Scientists
at the RHIC have not seen any strangelets of any size or type
appear however, which puts the whole strange matter theory into
Bubbles and Magnetic Monopoles
Another concern raised by particle colliders is
the possibility that they might generate a bubble of vacuum
at a lower level than currently exists in the universe. If that
was the case, the whole of the universe would suddenly be converted
to that level destroying any life.
There is also the possibility that a large collider
might be able to produce a particle known as a monopole. Most
magnets have two poles, north and south. In theory there might
be particles that have only a single magnetic pole (therefore
the name "monopole"). If monopoles exist and are heavy enough
they could cause protons to decay into electrons /positrons
and unstable mesons in a chain reaction that would destroy the
earth. However, even if monopoles do exist, ones that are heavy
enough to do such damage couldn't be made at LHC or any other
collider now in operation. The energy required to make such
heavy monopoles just can't be generated by today's colliders.
The bottom line is that almost anything that current
particle accelerators are capable of doing has been done in
nature already through natural high-energy, cosmic-ray collisions
with earth's atmosphere or a more solid object, like the moon.
These collisions happen hundreds of thousands of times each
day. Because of this black holes, strangelets, monopoles and
vacuum bubbles should have already been created by nature, but
they haven't, or if they have, they turned out not to have planet-destroying
This doesn't mean that experimental physics or
another scientific discipline might not, in the future, be capable
of doing experiments that might threaten the safety of humanity.
The possibility has long been on the mind of some scientists.
During the early atomic and hydrogen bomb tests, a few researchers
were initially concerned that the blast might set the earth's
atmosphere on fire, reducing the planet to a charred cinder.
Calculations made before the test showed that this was impossible,
though there are some rumors a few scientists were still extremely
nervous about such a thing at Trinity, the first atomic bomb
test in 1945. Perhaps they were thinking "what if those calculations
are wrong?" Scientists are fallible like anyone else. At Castle
Bravo, an early hydrogen bomb test in 1954, researches expected
the weapon to yield a 5 or 6 megaton blast. Instead, because
they miscalculated what would happen with the lithium-7 isotope
included in the bomb, it generated a 15 megaton blast with a
dangerous increase in fallout that poisoned several Pacific
Islands in the area along with a Japanese fishing boat.
Can society guard against the possibility of a
highly dangerous scientific experimentation without hampering
research that might benefit humanity? Up to this point in times
our science hasn't had the capability to trigger a doomsday
disaster. This will change in the next century. Just one example
is which nanotechnology holds the promise of cleaning up the
environment, ending water shortages, providing green power and
curing deadly illnesses, but it might also be capable of accidentally
reducing the planet to "grey goo."
Usually when a project is proposed the chance
of something going wrong is weighed against the amount of damage
that might result. We do this type of thing everyday: we evaluate
the chance of being in a car accident against the cost to us
if it does occur. There is a fair chance I might be in a collision
on my way to work, but even if I am, the chances are I will
not be killed or even seriously injured, so I accept the risk.
In the case of a doomsday experiment, however,
the chances of anything going wrong might indeed be tiny, but
the cost - the destruction of all human life - is enormous.
What is the acceptable probability of such an event? One in
a million? One in a billion?
and the Courts
Before the LHC went on line a number of lawsuits
were filed in order to stop its operation. Most of the claims
the plaintiffs made were based on faulty scientific data and
ideas, but the merits of these arguments were never tested in
court. The cases were simply thrown out based on jurisdictional
Eric E Johnson, a lawyer at the University of
North Dakota, has written a paper arguing that the courts have
a place in stopping hypothetically cataclysmic experiments.
Others argue that such an approach could bog down important
research with frivolous lawsuits. There is also a question of
what kind of court would have the necessary jurisdiction. A
case against the LHC was brought in Switzerland but was dropped
because the LHC straddles the Franco-Swiss border and treaties
with France and Switzerland guarantee the research center immunity
from the legal process in both countries.
So what court would have the right jurisdiction?
A future threat might come from any laboratory in the world.
How could a plaintiff in South Africa get an injunction to stop
an experiment being run in the People's Republic of China if
he had good evidence that it might destroy the planet? And even
if you could get a case into a courtroom could a judge really
understand the arcane scientific arguments that might emerge
in such a lawsuit?
There is currently no clear cut way these concerns
can really be addressed except by safety reviews done by the
scientific organizations sponsoring the research. Many people
are concerned however, that such reviews will be biased unless
done by an outside entity. After billions of dollars have been
spent and scientific careers are on the line, the temptation
to fudge the facts and proceed with a dangerous experiment might
be irresistible. So how we will protect the world from dangerous
experiments remains an open question. A question the human race
needs to address before something goes badly wrong.
Copyright Lee Krystek
2011. All Rights Reserved.