It’s The End Of The World As We Know It
And of Course I Feel Fine. So Should You
With many apologies to R.E.M., the line has been used by many, lately, who fear the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider (the LHC) this week in Geneva, Switzerland.
Citizens Against The Large Hadron Collider is a non-profit organization established for the purpose of using legal action to prevent the operation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) until further safety tests are conducted.
Yes, they exist.
Some experts fear that the risk of operating the LHC disproportionately outweighs anything science might gain from this experiment. It is not possible to know what the outcome of the experiment will be, but even CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) scientists concede that there is a real possibility of creating destructive theoretical anomalies such as miniature black holes, strangelets and deSitter space transitions. These events have the potential to fundamentally alter matter and destroy our planet.
As Carl Sagan used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. It’s a fairly trite, but innocuous statement, and surprisingly hard for some to live up to.
So should we be afraid of the LHC? Not really. It’s more worthwhile to be afraid to drive to work tomorrow morning. The risks inherent in that are much greater.
Here’s the deal. The LHC is going to crash together bits of matter harder than has ever been done before. It’s inevitable that some small bit is going to achieve a record density (Quick! Alert Guinness!). How dense? Can it create a black hole, if only a miniature one? How bad would that be?
Well, yes. Believe it or not, the LHC could indeed create black holes, miniature ones.
When the protons collide with each other inside the machine, one thing that scientists are certain won’t happen is the production of miniature black holes that gobble up nearby matter.
For a couple of reasons, they won’t do much. Black holes evaporate. Miniature black holes evaporate very quickly Steven Hawkings convinced a lot of people about that starting about 35 years ago.
There is a rule in physics that says that the smaller the black hole, the quicker the evaporation. For an LHC-style black hole, estimated to be only a billionth of a billionth of a meter across (an atto-meter) the black hole would exist for a bit more than a few billion-billion-billionths of a second. It wouldn’t be around long enough to swallow any nearby matter and would pose no danger to ordinary matter.
“Whew!” You say. “But, what if they’re wrong about this evaporation thing?” Glad you asked!
In their study of the matter, Steve Giddings of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Michelangelo Mangano of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (the parent laboratory where LHC operates) look at what happens if there existed a type of black hole, one we’d be concerned about, that could not only survive but would continue to grow to a macroscopic size in a time shorter than billions of years.
If such a type of black hole existed, it would grow even quicker inside super-compressed stars, such as white dwarfs and neutron stars, where the density of matter is billions or trillions of times greater then the density of rock on Earth. These celestial objects are created when an ordinary star runs out of fuel and starts to contract.
In other words, the existence of healthy, dense white dwarfs and neutron stars that are millions and billions (even 10 billion, actually) of years old gives us good evidence that miniature black holes (even the ones with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads) are not going to eat the Earth Wednesday when the LHC is turned on, which is also known as a good thing.
Here’s a slightly more elevated description of the LHC and it’s scope.