Saturday science subject: The Large Hadron Collider

— 10:02 AM on March 29, 2008

We first talked about CERN's cyclopean Large Hadron Collider in September of 2006. The report we quoted then included a statement from Dr. Brian Cox of Manchester University, who said the possibility of the particle accelerator generating a black hole that would destroy Earth was "at the level of 10 to the minus 40."

Apparently, those odds aren't quite good enough for some folks, because the New Scientist reports that two Hawaii residents have filed a lawsuit in an effort to postpone the LHC's activation until both CERN and U.S. contributors to the LHC project can "prove" it's entirely safe. The LHC is located on the other side of the planet from the plaintiffs (on the border between France and Switzerland), but the lawsuit alleges that the fate of the entire planet could be at stake.

The collider will simulate conditions less than a billionth of a second after the big bang, by smashing protons together at enormous energies. Physicists hope to resolve long-standing questions, such as why particles have mass and whether space has hidden extra dimensions. . . . But Wagner and Sancho's [the plaintiffs] court papers raise theoretical scenarios in which the LHC could create particles that gobble up the Earth, such as "killer strangelets". Strangelets are hypothetical blobs of matter containing "strange" quarks, as well as the usual "up" and "down" types that make up ordinary matter.

If a strangelet were stable and negatively charged, it might begin eating the nuclei of ordinary matter, converting them into strange matter. Eventually the menacing chain reaction could assimilate our entire planet and everyone on it. . . . A 2003 safety review for the LHC found "no basis for any conceivable threat". It acknowledged that there's a small chance the accelerator could create short-lived, mini black holes or exotic "magnetic monopoles" that destroy protons in ordinary atoms. But it concluded that neither scenario could lead to disaster.

So, what does CERN think about the claim? According to CERN spokesman James Gillies, the lawsuit is "complete nonsense." Gillies tells the New Scientist, "The LHC will start up this year, and it will produce all sorts of exciting new physics and knowledge about the universe." He adds, "A year from now, the world will still be here."

If everything goes as planned, scientists hope the LHC will be switched on in the middle of July. Detailed reports regarding the particle accelerator's safety can be downloaded directly from CERN's website.

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