'The End is nigh! A big stakes suit to save us all.' That is the Page Two headline in today's International Herald Tribune. It is the story of how two men – Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho – are suing the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN), or rather are suing for a court-ordered restraining order that would prevent them from operating their Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The claim is that the proper due diligence has not been performed, and that CERN '…has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act.' (International Herald Tribune, Monday March 31, 2008, p.2)
The story goes on to explain that the LHC could create a black hole, and that although it is theorized (by Stephen Hawking) that black holes '…evaporate in a poof of radiation and elementary particles,' this phenomenon has never been witnessed, so Wagner and Sancho theorize that black holes might actually be stable, and that a micro-black hole created in the LHC could expand and destroy the Earth and eventually the universe (which I contend would be irrelevant to many of us once the Earth and Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen in Montreal were gone).
I find several points to this suit severely flawed, not the least of which is that they are suing in (sic!) the U.S. District Court in Honolulu. While I am sure that the scientists and lawyers from CERN (located outside Geneva in Switzerland) would relish the idea of spending time on the beautiful Big Island in Hawaii, I am equally sure that they are not stupid enough as to cede to the U.S. District Court's jurisdiction in order to do so. These are, after all, the people who actually invented the Internet (yes Dave, shot #2 at Mr. Gore this week!), as well as a Large Hadron Collider capable of creating matter and reproducing conditions not witnessed since the trillionth of a second following the Big Bang!
The same scientists bringing this suit did the same (unsuccessfully) against the Brookhaven National Laboratory when they fired up their Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC). The RHIC at Brookhaven is a similar (somewhat smaller) machine to the LHC, and has been operating without causing any recognizable destruction of the universe since 2000. What makes the pair think that a slightly (sic!) larger machine would cause destruction unfounded in the smaller version?
For those of you interested in the technical details of the LHC in plain English I suggest you read Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. It is the novel that introduced the main character from his later novel The DaVinci Code, and is for my money a much more interesting read. Although its writing presumes the opening of the LHC some ten years before actual, most of the science in that work is plausible… though I will not speak to the matter/anti-matter issue of which my knowledge is limited to Star Trek and that novel.
My very limited knowledge of the LHC and CERN did not originate with that novel, but then I am almost as ignorant as any non-scientist on the matter. The LHC is the largest machine in the world, and if I remember correctly (I am currently 32,000 feet above sea level in a Boeing 737-800 and unable to access the Internet to check my facts) extends beyond the borders of Switzerland into Italy and France. It is a giant particle accelerator that will smash protons together and allow their scientists to '…sift through the debris for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.' (Ibid) If you discount the minute possibility that it might destroy the universe, I do not see a downside to it.
If you are keeping up on your reading (and what is more important than reading my blog?) you will know that last week I visited the Nobel Museum in Stockholm and had a lot of opportunity to think about science and discovery. Although I do not know what new knowledge and discoveries could be made by sifting through this matter, I do understand that most great discoveries were done so by accident, or at least without really knowing what the scientists were looking for. I am certain though that if penicillin can be discovered by examining mouldy bread, the possibilities of examining this primordial sludge (what a great term!) has infinite possibilities beyond even the comprehension of the geniuses at CERN.
I hope that they do not blow it by showing up in Honolulu.