The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

LHC Lunacy & Doomsday Scenarios

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 23, 2009

In my last post, I took various physics woo-meisters to task for being what I call “Einstein cranks”.  However, another class of physics crank deserves some notice, if only because they have made their cranky ideas so public and obvious.  These are the cranks who believe the Large Hadron Collider is going to destroy the Earth by the creation of a black hole or strangelet.

**Aside: Even if the worst-case scenario were to come true, and a planet-eating black hole were to be formed in the LHC, this blog entry explains quite clearly why there is no concern.

All I can say is… balderdash… complete and utter pseudoscientific fear-mongering & balderdash.  The following video from The Daily Show illustrates just how silly these arguments can be…

The arguments from these folks range from simply not understanding basic physics to delusional conspiracy mongering. Walter Wagner, the man in the video above, illustrates a perfect storm of woo regarding this issue.  Allow me to list some of the flaws in his reasoning more specifically…

First off, the level of energy of the interactions within the LHC (or any particle accelerator, for that matter) is well within the range of numerous naturally occurring events.  For example, high-energy cosmic rays have been slamming into our upper atmosphere for billions of years, and as yet none of these natural interactions has generated a black hole, strangelet, or any other form of deadly exotic matter which threatens to destroy our planet.  So if nature has been performing such experiments for billions of years, why all the sudden fear that a machine will suddenly end up destroying us?

Another fatal flaw in Wagner’s argument is when he states “there is a 50/50 chance of the LHC destroying the Earth”.  When challenged in the video clip as to why this is the case, he responds by saying “either the LHC will destroy the Earth, or it won’t – that’s 50/50.”  You’ve got to be kidding me!

Wagner and the other woosters need to go back to school and understand basic probability if they take these lame arguments seriously.  For example, if I shuffle a deck of cards, the odds that I will randomly draw the Ace of Spades is 1 in 52 (because there is only one Ace of Spades in a fair deck); but according to Wagner and his cranky ilk, there is a 50-50 chance I could draw the Ace of Spades!  You know, I bet that when Wagner visits Las Vegas the folks running the casinos love to have him around – he will soon be rather broke using that twisted logic 🙂

So why are Wagner and other nuts making these arguments, despite their patent silliness?  I have some ideas on this… one, they are simply paranoid conspiracy theorists – believe it or not, there are some folks out there who really think the government, Illuminati, etc are actually out to destroy the planet and this is how they plan to do it.  A second possibility is some of these folks have a religiously based anti-scientific attitude, where they believe that by using the LHC to explore the physics of the Big Bang scientists are somehow impinging upon God’s domain, and God will punish us – this is analogous to the Biblical story of Adam & Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.   Still a third possibility is that some of the woo-meisters are using the hysteria surrounding the LHC as a way of making money – after all, there are some of them who solicit donations on their websites as a way of paying for litigation in various courts to stop the startup of the LHC. And, sadly, I’m sure there are people who are both scared & gullible enough to send in money.

But what is the best evidence that the LHC is not the great, cosmic danger these whackjobs insist?  It is the fact that on Sept. 10th, 2008 the LHC was successfully turned on… and the end-of-the-world didn’t come!  Yup, I hate to break it to you, folks, but we’re still here – hmmm, fancy that.

To stay as up-to-date as possible on the status of the LHC and it’s Earth-destroying potential, allow me to recommend the following website…

Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the Earth yet?😉

19 Responses to “LHC Lunacy & Doomsday Scenarios”

  1. JTankers said

    I found your blog interesting though it does contain a few errors, such as the misleading statement that the LHC was successfully turned on in 2008 proving its safety. (Actually the LHC malfunctioned before high energy collisions could be conducted in 2008. Furthermore the time frame between possible creation of exotic matter and possible negative effects to Earth are unknown.)

    It is commendable though that you apparently respect Dr. Albert Einstein. Even some otherwise respectable physicists have challenged Dr. Einstein’s proven ideas and thinking, including Dr. Steven Hawking who requires Dr. Einstein to be “doubly wrong” for Hawking Radiation (HR) to work (HR is one of CERN’s un-verified safety factors as I trust you are aware).

    Walter Wagner’s probability calculations can certainly be debated, but it is his way of stating that not enough is known with certainty to make a safety calculation with any meaningful precision. Likewise CERN’s 0% danger calculation is equally open to criticism as it requires several un-verified theories to be correct, each with at least a 1 in 1000 chance of being wrong according to at least one learned analysis.

    Who is being more foolish? Those who criticize the concerned and ignore or fail to appreciate weaknesses in their own safety analysis or those who seek verification of safety factors before experimentation begins. (This is not dis-similar to the technicians who loudly argued against launching the Space Shuttle Challenger in freezing weather IMHO; The technicians concerns were unfortunately proven valid, probability of danger was unknown and proved to have been high.)

    FYI, The “we are still hear” argument with respect to cosmic rays striking Earth is flawed (a flaw discovered by Walter Wagner him self and acknowledged by at least a few ranking members at CERN). Results of cosmic ray collisions with Earth all travel at relativistic speeds and pass through Earth and safely back into space. Some results of head-on collissions at the LHC have velocities too small to escape Earth’s gravity.

    As one professor once wrote “The possibility that non-radiating `mini’ black holes exist should be taken seriously; such holes could be part of the dark matter in the Universe”.

    • mattusmaximus said

      JTankers said:

      I found your blog interesting though it does contain a few errors, such as the misleading statement that the LHC was successfully turned on in 2008 proving its safety. (Actually the LHC malfunctioned before high energy collisions could be conducted in 2008. Furthermore the time frame between possible creation of exotic matter and possible negative effects to Earth are unknown.)

      Yes, you are correct in that no major collisions took place in the LHC before the premature shutdown. However, it was successfully turned on and proton beams were successfully & safely run through the machine. Your assertion as to the time frame of creation of exotic matter is dubious because 1) there is no evidence that such “exotic matter” (whatever that is) would be created, and 2) we know that naturally occurring high-energy collisions involving cosmic rays and our atmosphere have been taking place for billions of years with no apparent ill effects.

      JTankers said:

      It is commendable though that you apparently respect Dr. Albert Einstein. Even some otherwise respectable physicists have challenged Dr. Einstein’s proven ideas and thinking, including Dr. Steven Hawking who requires Dr. Einstein to be “doubly wrong” for Hawking Radiation (HR) to work (HR is one of CERN’s un-verified safety factors as I trust you are aware).

      I respect both Einstein and Hawking – so what? I fail to see how this is at all relevant to the discussion. In addition, are you implying that hypothetical Hawking radiation is another supposed danger that we need to worry about? If so, what justification do you have for making such a statement?

      JTankers said:

      Walter Wagner’s probability calculations can certainly be debated, but it is his way of stating that not enough is known with certainty to make a safety calculation with any meaningful precision. Likewise CERN’s 0% danger calculation is equally open to criticism as it requires several un-verified theories to be correct, each with at least a 1 in 1000 chance of being wrong according to at least one learned analysis.

      Wagner’s calculations are so laughable that I find it amazing that anyone would attempt to seriously defend them. I might as well claim that there’s a 50/50 chance that you’ll turn into a fish upon reading this response: hey, either you will turn into a fish or you won’t, so that’s a 50% chance, right? Give me a break – the fact that you are attempting to explain away Wagner’s ham-fisted attempts at math does not reflect well on your credibility.

      JTankers said:

      Who is being more foolish? Those who criticize the concerned and ignore or fail to appreciate weaknesses in their own safety analysis or those who seek verification of safety factors before experimentation begins. (This is not dis-similar to the technicians who loudly argued against launching the Space Shuttle Challenger in freezing weather IMHO; The technicians concerns were unfortunately proven valid, probability of danger was unknown and proved to have been high.)

      Ummm… you and the other scare mongers are being more foolish. I suggest you look up the paralyzing precautionary principle.

      JTankers said:

      FYI, The “we are still hear” argument with respect to cosmic rays striking Earth is flawed (a flaw discovered by Walter Wagner him self and acknowledged by at least a few ranking members at CERN). Results of cosmic ray collisions with Earth all travel at relativistic speeds and pass through Earth and safely back into space. Some results of head-on collissions at the LHC have velocities too small to escape Earth’s gravity.

      You do know about these things called muons, right? Naturally occurring muons are generated as the result of the collision on high-energy cosmic rays with molecules in our upper atmosphere, and we can detect them on the surface of the Earth. In fact, I have personally conducted such experiments where the muons (which are moving at relativistic speeds – v=0.9952c) are stopped within the detector. These and numerous other particles created from naturally occurring cosmic ray collisions are raining down on us all the time, and yes many of them are stopped next to or within the Earth by interacting with our atmosphere or the solid matter of the Earth itself. So your statements are flat wrong, and I am amazed that you are making such an obviously wrong claim and still expect to be taken seriously by someone well-trained in physics. But if you are more interested in scaring people than presenting facts, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.

      JTankers said:

      As one professor once wrote “The possibility that non-radiating `mini’ black holes exist should be taken seriously; such holes could be part of the dark matter in the Universe”.

      How is this statement at all relevant to the discussion at hand? Are you simply writing down random crap in an attempt to sound like you know what you’re talking about? If so, let me tell you that it’s not working.

      • JTankers said

        Yes, the precautionary principle requires reasonable judgment. CERN’s head-on particle collissions are expected in 2009 to create energies 5 times more concentrated than ever created at rest on Earth before (cosmic ray to Earth collissions are not at rest with respect to Earth).

        CERN predicts some probability of non-dangerous micro black hole creation from these collissions and other academics subsequently questioned whether micro black hole creation would definitely be safe (would mBH evaporate or grow too slowly to pose a threat?)

        And perhaps a more accurate statement might be that according to the LHC Safety Assessment Group (LSAG) in early 2008 “While it is true that a BH produced by cosmic rays would not be stopped by the Earth, there are many other “things” in the universe that could trap such CR-produced BH’s, thus leading to visible consequences.” [1]

        It appears relevant that at least one academic conjectures that the “visible” consequences of mBH [micro Black Hole] production might be part of the dark matter measured in the universe. [2]

        I don’t think the precautionary principal should be abandoned any more than reasonable finacial regulation should have been abandoned prior to the most recent global economic crisis.

        My concern is that safety theories are credibly challenged and confirmation of safety theories prior to LHC collissions may be a reasonable application of a reasonably applied precautionary principal.

        [1] LSAG email (16 March 2008) http://www.scientificconcerns.com/Forums/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=22&hilit=LHCSafetyAssessment.Group%40cern.ch&start=10 )

        [2] Prof. Dr. Adam D. Helfer (2003) Do black holes radiate? Do black holes radiate? http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0304042v1

      • mattusmaximus said

        JTankers said:

        Yes, the precautionary principle requires reasonable judgment. CERN’s head-on particle collissions are expected in 2009 to create energies 5 times more concentrated than ever created at rest on Earth before (cosmic ray to Earth collissions are not at rest with respect to Earth).

        So what if the cosmic ray to Earth collisions are not at rest with respect to Earth? You seem very confused here if you think the LHC collisions would be any different – the proton beams in the LHC would also be moving at relativistic speeds with respect to the Earth’s frame of reference. For you to not understand this means that you need to take a refresher course in the basic physics of relative motion.

        JTankers said:

        CERN predicts some probability of non-dangerous micro black hole creation from these collissions and other academics subsequently questioned whether micro black hole creation would definitely be safe (would mBH evaporate or grow too slowly to pose a threat?)

        Who are these “other academics” to whom you are referring? You seem to be making quite a leap in logic from “CERN predicts that some mBHs might be created” to “this is really dangerous stuff!”

        JTankers said:

        And perhaps a more accurate statement might be that according to the LHC Safety Assessment Group (LSAG) in early 2008 “While it is true that a BH produced by cosmic rays would not be stopped by the Earth, there are many other “things” in the universe that could trap such CR-produced BH’s, thus leading to visible consequences.” [1]

        “Visible consequences” defined as what, exactly? You seem to be interpreting this phrase to mean that we’re all going to die when the Earth implodes or something similarly silly.

        JTankers said:

        It appears relevant that at least one academic conjectures that the “visible” consequences of mBH [micro Black Hole] production might be part of the dark matter measured in the universe. [2]

        Again, so what? You brought this up before, and you have yet to show that even if mBHs are part of the dark matter question how this is any way, shape, or form evidence that the LHC is dangerous and will lead to the destruction of the planet. This kind of logical fallacy you are so aptly displaying is called a non-sequitur, and it seems to me for you to keep harping on this point shows that you really don’t know what you’re talking about – you just want to look like you know what you’re talking about.

        JTankers said:

        I don’t think the precautionary principal should be abandoned any more than reasonable finacial regulation should have been abandoned prior to the most recent global economic crisis.

        My concern is that safety theories are credibly challenged and confirmation of safety theories prior to LHC collissions may be a reasonable application of a reasonably applied precautionary principal.

        This is a straw man argument combined with moving the goalposts – no one at CERN has ever said the precautionary principle should be abandoned. In fact, as you stated, the scientists at CERN went through a lengthy investigation of the safety of the LHC called the LHC Safety Assessment Group. You are more concerned about promoting your viewpoint by twisting or misrepresenting the facts than you are about being intellectually honest, methinks.

      • JTankers said

        (Response updated and re-posted in corrected location…)

        the proton beams in the LHC would also be moving at relativistic speeds with respect to the Earth’s frame of reference.”

        The difference with the LHC is that both beams travel at relativistic speeds in opposite directions, collide head-on and cancel the speed out with respect to Earth at point of impact (at least in the rare case when the two impacting quarks are perfectly aligned) leaving results moving too slowly to escape Earth’s gravity. (CERN estimated possible mBH production at a rate of one per second. At that creation rate it has been estimated that perhaps one mBH every few days would have a velocity too slow to escape Earth’s gravity.)

        “Who are these “other academics” to whom you are referring?”

        I recommend the main page of LHCFacts.org for a list of some of the academics who published papers that tend to challenge some of CERN’s safety theories. At least one senior astrophysics’s PHD also recommends risk mitigation procedures including increasing energy slowly and fully examining results at each significant new energy level before proceeding to the next level.[1] Another theorizes that micro black holes would be stable and likely grow exponentially.[2] Others challenge Hawking Radiation, etc. The list is impressive enough IMHO to warrant competent review by independent, uninvolved and un-biased 3rd parties.

        “… than you are about being intellectually honest, methinks”

        If there was a greater premium placed on intellectual honesty I may not have felt compelled to enter this debate. Perhaps you are aware of the following alleged exercise in safety information control:

        Chief Scientific Officer, Mr. Engelen passed an internal memorandum to workers at CERN, asking them, regardless of personal opinion, to affirm in all interviews that there were no risks involved in the experiments, changing the previous assertion of ‘minimal risk’” [3] Part 34, Page 18.

        [1] Dr. Habil. Rainer Plaga (26 Sep 2008) On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders, http://arxiv.org/abs/0808.1415

        [2] Prof. Dr. Otto. E. Rössler, Division of Theoretical Chemistry, University of Tübingen (2008) Abraham-Solution to Schwarzschild Metric Implies That CERN Miniblack Holes Pose a Planetary Risk, http://www.wissensnavigator.com/documents/OTTOROESSLERMINIBLACKHOLE.pdf

        [3] Luis Sancho (March 2008) Affidavit of Luis Sancho, US District Court Hawaii http://www.lhcdefense.org/pdf/Sancho%20v%20Doe%20-%20Affidavit%20of%20Luis%20Sancho.pdf

      • mattusmaximus said

        JTankers said:

        The difference with the LHC is that both beams travel at relativistic speeds in opposite directions, collide head-on and cancel the speed out with respect to Earth at point of impact (at least in the rare case when the two impacting quarks are perfectly aligned) leaving results moving too slowly to escape Earth’s gravity.

        Are you kidding me?! You actually think that because two proton beams moving in opposite directions at relativistic speeds means that in the Earth’s frame of reference they will no longer be traveling at relativistic speeds? The fact that you think this shows that you really do have little to no understanding of the physics involved with the LHC – you are displaying a huge amount of ignorance on this point. Have you ever heard of something called the Lorentz velocity transformation?

        Besides, even if what you are saying is correct, it isn’t relevant. I’ve already told you that numerous naturally occurring events (i.e. muons generated by cosmic rays) bombard the Earth all the time, and the high-energy particles involved with those events are stopped by the Earth itself. I have conducted experiments myself on these kind of events, and this sort of thing has been going on for billions of years. You are simply throwing out a red herring hoping to give yourself some semblance of credibility, and for that I have two words for you…

        EPIC FAIL. Now go learn some real physics before you post here again. Otherwise, I’ll block any future posts from you – start out by learning your error about the proton beams which I outlined above.

  2. 2-D Man said

    Don’t shuffle the deck of cards! There’s a 50% chance that it’ll destroy the universe!
    Wait…but if you don’t shuffle the deck of cards, that causes a 50% chance that the universe will be destroyed!
    Oh my Athena! That’s a 100% chance that the universe will be destroyed! We’re all screwed!!!1!eleventyone!

  3. JTankers said

    the proton beams in the LHC would also be moving at relativistic speeds with respect to the Earth’s frame of reference.
    The difference with the LHC is that both beams travel at relativistic speeds in opposite directions, collide head-on and cancel the speed out with respect to Earth at point of impact (at least in the rare case when the two impacting quarks are perfectly aligned) leaving results moving too slowly to escape Earth’s gravity. (CERN estimated possible mBH production at a rate of one per second. At that creation rate it has been estimated that perhaps one mBH every few days would have a velocity too slow to escape Earth’s gravity.)

    Who are these “other academics” to whom you are referring?
    I recommend the main page of LHCFacts.org for a list of some of the academics who published papers that tend to challenge some of CERN’s safety theories. At least one senior astrophysics’s PHD also recommends risk mitigation procedures including increasing energy slowly and fully examining results at each significant new energy level before proceeding to the next level.

    … than you are about being intellectually honest, methinks
    If there was a greater premium placed on intellectual honesty I may not have felt compelled to enter this debate. Perhaps you are aware of the following alleged exercise in safety information control:

    Chief Scientific Officer, Mr. Engelen passed an internal memorandum to workers at CERN, asking them, regardless of personal opinion, to affirm in all interviews that there were no risks involved in the experiments, changing the previous assertion of ‘minimal risk’” [1] Part 34, Page 18.

    [1] Affidavit of Luis Sancho, US District Court Hawaii, Luis Sancho (March 2008)

  4. JTankers said

    I will ask professional physicist friends of mine to review the points you make.

    Thank you for the conversation Matt,
    Jim

    • mattusmaximus said

      I will do likewise, seeing as how I actually know a few physicists who are working on the LHC.

  5. mattusmaximus said

    As promised, I have conferred with some other physicists about these issues, and below are some of their comments. Note that concerning the relative velocity issue, I misunderstood the point that JTankers was attempting to make – I thought he meant the collisions would be non-relativistic. So upon re-reading his comments, I am willing to concede his point. However, my other criticisms stand.

    For example, one last point about the relative velocity issue that I thought of after my earlier post… if the products of LHC collisions were believed by the physicists & engineers who designed the LHC were thought to be at rest wrt Earth, then why surround the collision points with detectors which are supposed to detect those products as they fly out of the collision? With the levels of energy that we’re dealing with in the LHC, to flatly state that the collision products would simply remain at rest seems to be quite a stretch to me – this is because while it is true the momenta of the two proton beams would likely cancel out, the huge kinetic energies involved would still be present causing the collision products to fly every which way.

    In any case, here are the comments…

    Comment #1:

    Well, I’m afraid JTankers is actually correct about the relativistic speeds issue. The LHC is designed so that the two counter-rotating beams carry the same energy. In other words the protons in each beam have equal but opposite velocity when they collide, at least on average. (The reason you want that is that otherwise the products of the collision would always fly off in one direction and you’d lose most of them out the end of the detector. There are actually some colliders designed asymmetrically like that intentionally, but not the LHC.)

    If a “black hole” was produced by a proton-proton collision at the LHC, it would be at rest at least on average (I haven’t calculated how likely it would be that it has more than escape velocity, but I expect that in a reasonably large fraction of events it will not). On the other hand if a BH was produced by a cosmic ray collision, it would initially have a large velocity in the earth’s frame. Of course that doesn’t mean it would keep that large velocity after it was produced – it would be likely to pass through the earth, for one thing.

    The best argument against these nutjobs is that there is absolutely no reason to think there is a danger. The theories that predict “black holes” will be produced are extremely speculative – and they also predict that they will evaporate immediately. There is no theory that predicts black holes will be produced and be a danger.

    I put “black hole” in quotes because in those theories, the things that would be produced behave nothing like large black holes. They are unstable states of a few particles that are very temporarily held together by gravity before they fly apart again. They’re resonances, not stable objects.

    If we don’t turn on the LHC because of these unwarranted fears, by the same standard we should stop doing all science experiments. There is always an inherent risk in doing things you’ve never done before. But there is a much bigger risk in not doing them.

    Comment #2:

    That’d be correct for an electron-positron collider; the beam momenta cancel out and a created-at-threshhold product would really be at rest. However, the LHC is a proton-proton collider; you should really think of it as a quark-quark collider (or a quark-gluon or gluon-gluon collider) with the proton as sort of a sabot. The proton-proton momenta are balanced but, due to the proton form factor, the individual collisions are wildly imbalanced, and the collision products usually have a huge velocity along the beam axis. The probability of a collision product ending up at rest with respect to the Earth, i.e. below 11 km/s, is very small.

    If anyone would like to keep up with the ongoing conversation on these points, check out the thread at the following URL…

    http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=143758

    • JTankers said

      Thank you, I also received a review:

      Muons generated by cosmic ray collisions are indeed quite fast, but with much less energy than the incoming particle. They are slowed to a stop by electromagnetic interactions with matter, just as would protons or electrons be slowed to a stop. They do not ‘collide’ and engage in nuclear reactions [except possibly on rare occasion], but rather lose energy over distance due to excitation of nearby electrons, causing them to lose energy. This is typically how most all cosmic ray shower materials are stopped – not by direct head-on collisions involving nuclear interactions, but rather by ionizing the nearby matter over distance [traveled], thereby losing energy.

      He seems to be [unaware] of the relativistic argument [CERN’s] Mangano recognized (forcing him to go to the ‘neutron star’ argument, now attacked by Roessler) […] And, he ignores (as does CERN) the fact that there are no ultra-high energy Lead nuclei in the cosmic rays at the COM energies of the LHC, which is what is likely required for strangelet production.

      • mattusmaximus said

        Well, well, I seem to have found a very interesting blog entry by a theoretical physicist who outlines the worst case scenario of the LHC forming a planet-eating black hole…

        http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2009/05/the_lhc_black_holes_and_you.php

        Care to comment on those calculations at all, JTankers? In addition, do you care to comment on why you did a “drive by posting” whereby you made comments there similar to here, yet you never stuck around to justify those same comments?

        Your credibility is slipping – badly.

    • JTankers said

      I primarily limit my current activities to correcting mis-information (the same goal as your site coincidentally).

      Thanks again for the conversation,
      Jim

  6. […] from the Skeptical Teacher is discussing LHC doomsday conspiracy theories with The Mad Skeptic who just got done discussing the shocking (not so much, actually) truth behind […]

  7. […] Posts LHC Lunacy & Doomsday ScenariosMore Physics Woo: The Einstein CranksWisdom in a CookieJudging Science & FaithScience, Morality, […]

  8. Kathryn said

    So, it looks like the biggest risks associated with the LHC are simply the usual risks of operating high-voltage physics equipment–nothing associated with weird physics.

  9. […] has the “potential” to create a black hole that will destroy the earth. Whilst its been debunked many times over I’d just like to re-iterate it here, we’re not in any danger from the […]

  10. […] LHC Lunacy & Doomsday Scenarios « The Skeptical Teacher […]

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