Apocalypse CERN

Tony Rothman


Between those who have watched the Large Hadron Rap on YouTube, and regard the Large Hadron Collider at CERN as the all-time greatest inspiration to pop music, and those who await the imminent destruction of earth world by the black holes that the LHC is certain to create, everyone on the planet is accounted for.


You know what I’m talking about: The Large Hadron Collider, CERN’s giant particle accelerator on the border between France and Switzerland, may create ultra microscopic black holes capable of swallowing the world in a matter of months, putting an end to all misery.  Long before the black-hole flap hit the New York Times, I was party to several internet discussions about the matter and contacted by a disciple of Otto Rossler, a European chemist who opposes the LHC because of the black-hole danger.  The disciple, an artist, urgently requested that I come out publically in support of Rossler and denounce the LHC as a threat to mankind.  Since then, Rossler has become the most visible opponent of the LHC, appearing in European newspaper, magazine, television, radio and YouTube interviews.   He claims that according to his calculations the black holes produced by the LHC are indeed a threat to earth.  Other LHC opponents, Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho, went so far to file suit in Hawaii to prevent the machine from being turned on.  The suit was dismissed in October, 2008, on jurisdictional grounds.


Let me say at once that, unlike most physicists, I have read Rossler’s paper and judge it to be a crackpot piece of work.  Rossler is an eminent chemist, and perhaps for that reason the European media has not dismissed him, but the paper belies his public claims that his calculations prove something.   He has calculated nothing at all; he has merely made a series of misinformed and incorrect statements about Einstein’s general theory of relativity. 


What interests me is not whether Rossler is correct—he isn’t.  Serious and comprehensive LHC risk assessments have been carried out; they rightly conclude that the potential threat posed by a black hole is about at the same probability of an electron turning into a dinosaur, which Sarah Palin alone might credit.  What interests me more is the attitude displayed by the media to the affair—and the response of scientists.


If the media had been interested in truth more than controversy, Rossler never would have been afforded a platform.  For its part, however, the physics community hasn’t helped.  In general its attitude has been typical: an arrogant dismissal of public concern.  Few physicists have bothered to read Rossler’s paper and fewer have countered his assertions in public.  They can’t be bothered and the reason they can’t be bothered can be found in one of the three knee-jerk responses a physicist makes to any claim: “It’s wrong,” “It’s trivial,” or “I did it first.” 


When the topic of the LHC black holes first arose every physicist I know, including several world-class ones, immediately enlisted cosmic-rays as a counterargument: Cosmic ray protons of far higher energy than the LHC will produce have been bombarding the earth for billions of years.  If a black hole were going to be produced and swallow the earth, it already would have, but here we are. 


Unfortunately the reflexive response, designed to end discussion, only played into the hands of the alarmists.  Microscopic black holes produced by cosmic rays would be moving at high velocity and pass harmlessly through a planet-sized body, while the LHC black holes would be nearly at rest, potentially capable of causing much greater damage.  A more detailed rebuttal must thus be made (and has been), but if a physicist condescendingly espoused this argument as an expert witness at a trial, the prosecution would ensure that he left the stand with egg on his face.


Physicists do not want to deal with public concerns because they believe that the LHC belongs to them and that the public is incapable of understanding the issues.  But as the judge in the Hawaii case stated, matters such as the safety of the LHC extend far beyond the physics community.  She dismissed the case, but not on the merits.


It is perhaps time that some permanent and impartial mechanism be established to deal with scientific safety issues.  The LHC is far from the first scientific project to raise public alarm.  Walter Wagner himself filed a similar lawsuit in 2000 to prevent the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory from being turned on.   Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the public frequently protested recombinant DNA and low-level electromagnetic radiation.  Nuclear power has been a constant source of public protest and more recently wind farms.  We must expect that that in the years to come scientific safety issues will arise ever more frequently.


Past controversies have been dealt with on an ad-hoc basis, either by local communities, or by scientific panels set up by the National Research Council or even by the organizations directly involved in the controversies, which was the case with the LHC.  Such organizations have an obvious vested interest in the outcome and in the public eye are not above suspicion.  Nevertheless, it is clear that lawsuits are not the best mechanism to resolve such controversies.  When the New York Times article appeared I asked a friend, Giovanni Bonello, a justice on the European Court of Human Rights, what mechanism should be put in place to resolve scientific safety disputes.  He emphatically replied not the courts: in matters involving international organizations, such as CERN, courts are perpetually hamstrung over jurisdictional matters.  Additionally there is the highly technical nature of the issues, forcing judges to sit through weeks of expert testimony, which they do not understand.

A more reasonable model might be Doctors Without Borders.  It is a private, transnational, nongovernmental volunteer organization, which observes strict neutrality.   It is, certainly, easier for physicians to observe neutrality in war zones than scientists in safety disputes.  Here the issues are technical and physicists, not artists, will necessarily be called upon to evaluate risks such as the LHC.  Nevertheless, one might avoid frivolous lawsuits if laboratories voluntarily submitted to arbitration by an impartial organization, and there are enough competent scientists unattached to the involved projects to supply a pool of experts.  The main problem is that scientists would rather pursue their own research, as inconsequential as it may be, rather than enlist in a project for the greater good.


The scientist’s reluctance to lift one’s head from the sand, which I share, and the same “it’s wrong” attitude of the physics community has, apart from safety issues, led to a paradoxical situation.  In order for the putative LHC black holes to destroy the planet, they must survive long enough to do the job.  Stephen Hawking’s famous result, that black holes radiate away their mass, has led most physicists to believe that any black-holes created by the LHC would evaporate after approximately a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, far too short a time to do any damage.  Nevertheless, in recent years it has become clear that Hawking’s calculation made a number of unjustified assumptions and, for example, did not take into account the effect of the black hole radiation itself on the spacetime in which it resides.


A few years ago, Grigory Vilkovisky, a Russian physicist, published a trilogy of papers claiming that if one properly took this effect into account, black holes would evaporate only about half their mass; the rest would remain.  If Vilkovisky’s conclusion is correct, it would not only radically alter our ideas of black-hole physics, but would have a tremendous impact on our ideas about dark matter and would pave way for the possibility that any black holes created at CERN might actually survive long enough to be taken seriously.


Unlike Rossler, Vilkovisky is a highly res[ected physicist.  I acknowledge that I have known him for thirty years.  Bryce DeWitt, the “father of quantum gravity,” regularly referred to Grisha as “the smartest young man in the Soviet Union,” and I consider him a physicist of a similar caliber to Hawking.  He has had an unfortunate career, is something of a recluse and currently in bad health.  In contrast to Rossler’s paper, however, Vilkovisky’s have been published through standard channels in a peer-reviewed journal.  They consist of calculations that a physicist can in principle follow.  They may be wrong, and most of Vilkovisky’s colleagues with whom I have spoken think they probably are.  On the other hand, none of these scientists has read them.


So: Vilkovisky’s papers, which deserve more attention than Rossler’s, are long and difficult and have met with no response.  But conceivably they are right.  Rossler, whose papers are easier to read and nonsensical, has become the focus of media, even scientific attention.  Clearly this picture needs to be corrected, and the physics community is the only one that can do it.