Black holes and strangelets and monopoles, oh my

Will the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) destroy the earth when it comes online this summer? The odds that the new super duper fancy really crazy powerful particle collider, built beneath the border of France and Switzerland, will create mini-black holes that could combine, burrow to the center of the earth, gain mass, and be all over the planet like Elvis on a chili burger are not zero. Chances that the LHC will generate an artificial supernova, or create weird new forms of matter that could turn us all into those forms of matter are not zero. There is some small chance those things will happen. How small? Depends on whom you ask.

A lawsuit in US District Court now seeks to forestall scientists from starting up the thing until the potential cosmically catastrophic dangers are "reassessed," and a Web site is now devoted to expressing concerns which, while remote, would be the end of you and me and everything we ever knew if they turn out to have been justified.

Whether or not science is about to accidentally grab hold of some dangerous live wiring inside reality that could fry us all to a crisp, what's amazing to me is the fact that at some point, someone will make the assessment that the risk is worth it. There will be a meeting. And heads will nod, and then they will adjourn the meeting and bring their coffees back to their desks. Similar concerns about unlikely but dire consequences were raised about the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in New York back in the late 90s. They weighed the potential conclusion of life on earth, and then in the end, they went for it anyway. And they will go for it this time, too. Isn't that just so, quintessentially, like, us? And each time will make the next time easier!

It's now proven to be within human nature to voluntarily risk our very existence in order to, among other things, find something called the Higgs Boson particle. Therefore, extending the non-zero chance to infinity, isn't that just another way of saying that it's now a matter of time before some experiment does, in fact, unleash bad, bad things we don't understand, can't control, and didn't predict well enough? And that will be all she wrote.

They are now saying June will be the grand opening. Actual full-power collisions are scheduled to begin in August.

Oh well! Hey listen, you guys have a great day!!!


the plunge said...

Holy Crap! That is some major league fearmongering Grendie. A nonzero chance that the thing will blow up earth? You could add up 99% of the nonzero chances of anything anywhere ever happening and the odds of any of those 99% of things happening would still be so close to zero that you might as well round it down to such.

I'm way, way, way more worried about getting hit by someone trying to text their boyfriend while driving at 50 miles per hour, and astronomically more worried about the long term effects of eating too much cheese.

Nonzero is not a good term on which to base liklihood arguments on. Now if you told me, for instance that this thing had the same chance of blowing up earth as I do winning the Powerball--which is to say, about the chance that four people at a poker table in vegas all have the same birthdays and also all draw royal flushes on the same hand---well then, then I'd be worried.

Grendel said...

Go ahead, round 'em down to zero, Black Hole Boy! Put your head back in the sand ... while there is still sand.

Brando said...

I'm with the plunge on this one, Grendel old chap.

It's true that there is a chance that this experiment could have a catastrophic effect. But it is so astronomically (no pun intended) small that it is, for all practical purposes, zero.

The thing is, this is not some Simpson-esque experiment to study the effects of zero gravit on ant farms or salty snacks. These experiments could answer fundamental questions about the origin of the universe and the very nature of space and existence.

The other thing is that the doomsday scenarios don't add up. It is more or less impossible for this device to create a black hole that would swallow the earth or trigger a mini-big bang big enough to wipe us out. It's interesting reading but not good science.

But if it does trigger the end, I hope I have enough time to swallow one last Culver's Butterburger.

Grendel said...

I think I failed to shade my meaning correctly. I am more in wonder at what this reveals about human nature than whether this particular experiment, this time, is our last one.

Other natural catastrophic events are also possible, such as the sun turning into a red giant. Not scheduled to do that for billions of years. But we could be wrong about the sun, as we were wrong about the flat earth, the existence of aether, and the impossibility of breathing at 60mph.

It's like there is a guy in Vegas flipping quarters 24/7. If he flips 40 heads in a row, the sun will bloat and swallow the earth. The odds of him flipping 40 heads in a row (P = 2 raised to n, P = 2 raised to 40) is a little over 1 in a trillion. Most of us would be okay with that, I suppose. We have to be -- we have no choice about that one. There's another guy flipping to make an asteroid smash into the earth, too. Okay, fine - but enough!

What they've done with the LHC and other colliders, without asking us if we're okay with it, is started hiring more coin flippers.

Brando said...

Ha, I love the coin flippers line!

My thing is, the pursuit of knowledge almost always involves risk. Granted, not usually the risk or human existence. But I think most scientists actually tend to be cautious and take a conservative assessment toward risk. In much the same way I believe them when they say we need to do something about climate change, I believe them when they say this experiment won't turn the Earth into Cygnus X-1.

One analogy: I like traveling but hate flying. When I get on a plane and feel any turbulence, I replay every air disaster scene from every bit of pop culture lodged in my brain. But I know the chances of crashing are slim, and I've got places to go. So I squash the fear and stow my bag in the overhead compartment.