What is the Risk of the Large Hadron Collider – Yes

“Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on.”
– LHC project leader Lyn Evans

Soon CERN will switch on the Large Hadron Collider again after having repaired the recent helium leak – or, more accurately, bump up the experiments which had already been going on for some time before the helium leak was discovered. Odds are very good that the powering up and initial experiments at full power will go without visible incident, and may continue going without visible incident for some time.

And people will point to these immediate results and laugh at those who had shown concern, saying: “See? We told you nothing bad would happen!”

Which, ironically, is much the same thing roughly 90% of the physicists involved have been saying, based on exactly the same amount and type of evidence, telling us again and again that there is “no basis for any conceivable threat.” Oh, it could definitely create a tiny black hole or two – yes, the CERN scientists themselves acknowledge this falls within fairly likely possibilities – but Hawking radiation means it would evaporate almost at once. Of course, new findings are challenging whether Hawking radiation actually exists, but again, that is what the LHC is there to find out.

Should it so happen that Hawking, like so many physicists before him, did not have the full picture, an LHC black hole just might be stable. It also won’t be travelling very fast, so it would have a high chance of being captured by the earth. In this case, it would oscillate a few times all the way through the earth and back, eating up tiny amounts of matter each time, until eventually it comes to rest somewhere near the core. The problem is not what is absorbed into the black hole during those original oscillations, nor any shift in gravity, but that since it would remain within the earth, it would quietly keep on absorbing matter and growing. For some months we would notice nothing at all, although maybe a few fine instruments might notice tiny changes in the planet’s rotation, similar to the change observed after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. In somewhere between one and four years, the effects would suddenly become noticeable as a serious instability within the earth’s core – after which it would only be a matter of hours before the earth ceases to exist as a planet.

It is more likely that the LHC could also produce the theoretical particles known as strangelets, speculated to be among the major components of the universe’s ‘dark matter’. While any micro black hole would be a side effect of LHC collisions, strangelets are a primary goal.

Interestingly, a major argument by CERN scientists concerning the safety of possibly creating strangelets is that strangelets have never been proven to exist – although trying to obtain such proof is part of the purpose of the facility. And even if the LHC were to produce strangelets, it is argued that they would quickly break down.

But this assumption is outside known science. The truth is that no one knows how stable or unstable new strangelets would be. Known particles which incorporate strange quarks, such as the lambda particle, are always unstable because the strange quark is heavier than the others, so the strangeness is quickly lost as the strange quark decays into up and down quarks. However, the strange matter hypothesis suggests that particles with a larger number of quarks, divided more or less equally among the various types, may not decay (due to the Pauli exclusion principle). Another unknown of strange matter is surface tension. If it turns out to be above a critical threshold, the bigger the strangelet, the more stable it will be … and it just might have the ability to convert other forms of matter as well.

In total, the odds of anything really bad happening have been calculated to be approximately 50 million to one.

Do you play the lottery? Those are not ^15+ quantum odds or the necessary statistical ‘out’. Those are significantly better than the real-life odds of winning most lottery jackpots – and yet we know that people do win, and win quite regularly.

But – no danger. Nothing bad could ever happen from those odds. So says the canon of physicists, most of whom also firmly hold to the theory of evolution … which absolutely requires a long series of events at much smaller odds, individually and collectively, to result in – us. Most of these same physicists would rather believe in these short odds of blind evolution than even consider intelligent design. This, they consider rational.

At the same time, for some reason the same blind chance somehow does not apply where the LHC is concerned. The CERN physicists are perfectly willing to bet, not only their own lives, but the whole earth on it.

If that is not blind faith, I do not know what is.

“We recall the rates for the collisions of cosmic rays with the Earth, Sun, neutron stars, white dwarfs and other astronomical bodies at energies higher than the LHC. The stability of astronomical bodies indicates that such collisions cannot be dangerous.”
– Ellis et al, Review of the Safety of LHC Collisions

The recorded human history of the world spans only about ten thousand or so years. Our longest-lasting political institutions have debatably spanned a tenth of that; our longest lifetimes a hundredth and proportionately shrinking: in time, but especially in cumulative human-years, drowned against the human billions who increasingly walk the earth. Like the newborn time which may have sprung out of the Big Bang, individual meaning seems to be spanning an increasingly small, shattered part of that history: swinging us toward ever more drastic actions in order to leave our mark. In history, many of the greatest minds of their time carved their initials in fire and pillage across their pieces of the known universe … and a very few of them were able to build something up out of it afterward.

How can individuals of a species acting individually not be forced to the extremes, simply to show to the world that we have individual value?

It seems to make no difference to us that now those same actions of trying to leave our individual mark are no longer a matter of a few decimated villages but now have the real potential to destroy us utterly. How could it? Our perceived individual value, in our own eyes and those of others, has always been tightly linked to our ability to make the choices which affect others. Risk only increases the value, and consequently the intensity, of feeling. At the level of the individual, the riskiest choices are as individually life-affirming as it gets. The more the natural limits of life are seen to hold us back, the more we are forced to the extremes simply to prove that we have individual value, forced into a prisoner’s dilemma of raw reproductive competition. A species never makes a conscious choice to go extinct.

Perspective is a difficult thing. What would be a year’s delay for caution be against the history of humankind? but against the individual, how can any delay not be seen as time running out? We have been known to be a politically fickle species. Here and now, the technological imperative charges forward largely unquestioned and hindered only by a monetary and ideological translation of resources that, in themselves, are certainly more than adequate. Given time to reflect, we might even decide that our current level of technology has far outstripped our societal ability not to be wielded by it … and just maybe we might decide to hesitate, or even to take a step back until we can better evaluate the cliff.

Yet all too often, what passes for seeking understanding in this world is actually camouflaged justification. Even in the hard sciences, the goal now seems to be to show why this or that observed event does or does not have relevance to a particular outcome, and thus how it supports or opposes a particular policy direction; while other research often tries to demonstrate why a particular current situation could not have been predicted, based on the knowledge at hand at the time. And those results must be obtained within a single human working lifetime, preferably less, or they will be useless for the purpose.

We are sentient beings, capable of learning about our world, capable also of determining how to interact with our world. In the course of our learning, we are presented with a series of choices, many of which involve different levels of risk, all of which set foundations and precedents for further choices. At any point we can choose to proceed on our current path, or we can choose to set different priorities.

The sum of how we choose is also the sum of who we are as a species. In every way we have chosen our own identity – as we will have chosen our own future, whatever it should turn out to be. Let none speak of not having known, or of powerlessness. In this day and age, ignorance is willful ignorance; and powerlessness equally willful.

“Vizzini: He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!
“Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
– from “The Princess Bride”