It’s the End of the World As We Know It?


By Ethan

einsteinsbridge.gifDennis Overbye at the NY Times reports

lawyers for the federal government argued this week that a so-called “doomsday suit” intended to prevent the startup of a the world’s most powerful particle accelerator should be thrown out of court.

It appears the fear is that

the Large Hadron Collider could create microscopic black holes that could wind up eating the Earth, or other dangerous particles known as strangelets – a sort of contagious dead matter – or so-called magnetic monopoles, which could catalyze the destruction of ordinary matter.

Are we all doomed? Well, I just happen to know a physicist who’s done work with particle accelerators and happened to have written an amazing SF novel about what could possibly go wrong too. John G. Cramer is a Professor of Physics at the University of Washington and author of Einstein’s Bridge so I asked him what do we really have to fear. As it turns out, not much.

One can do a very simple experiment to resolve this issue: go outside on a clear night and see of the Moon is still there. If it is, we have nothing to fear from our particle accelerators, because the Moon, with no atmosphere to slow incoming cosmic rays, is continually being bombarded with cosmic ray protons and heavy nuclei (particularly iron) far higher in energy than anything we could produce with our feeble particle accelerators. The resulting particle-particle collisions are also far higher in energy than anything we could produce with, for example, the Tevatron at Fermilab or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. If such energetic collisions made planet-devouring black holes or nuggets of strange matter, the Moon would not be visible in the sky. If it is, we’re OK.

Cramer wrote a cool article about about black holes at the LHC for the Analog Alternate View Column which you can read here. He says “The LHC could perhaps make black holes, but they would be tiny, super-hot, and would fizz away in a thermal cloud of lighter particles almost as soon as they were produced.”

Now we can go back to worrying about 2012.