June 24, 2008

Report: Large Hadron Collider Does Not Put Earth at Risk

A report has concluded that the world's most powerful particle physics experiment is not putting our planet at risk.

Critics are concerned that the Earth's very existence could be threatened by the mini-black holes created at the Large Hadron Collider facility on the French-Swiss border.

A report from the European Organization for Nuclear Research says there is "no conceivable danger".

The organization, also known as Cern, will operate the underground collider in a 27km-long tunnel near Geneva.

In a bid to unlock the secrets of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will smash together protons at super-fast speeds.

The particles that emerge from the collisions will be counted, traced, and analyzed by six separate experiments, or "detectors."

The majority of physicists believe that the fear of a mini-black hole swallowing the Earth lends more to science fiction than reality.

Critics have been raising concerns that the creation of hypothetical particles called strangelets could trigger the mass conversion of ordinary atoms into more strange matter.  The conversion would transform the Earth into a hot, dead mass of matter.

A summary of the report, written by Cern's top theorists, says: "Over the past billions of years, nature has already generated on Earth as many collisions as about a million LHC experiments - and the planet still exists."

The report added there is no basis for any concerns about the consequences of new particles or forms of matter that could possibly be produced by the LHC.

The writers of the new report, including theoretical physicist John Ellis, firmly established that black holes could be made by the LHC.

 But he said: "If microscopic black holes were to be singly produced by colliding the quarks and gluons inside protons, they would also be able to decay into the same types of particles that produced them."

The expected lifetime [of a mini-black hole] would be very short, the report added.

The document also said that the hypothetical strangelet particles are less likely to be created at the LHC in Geneva than in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which has been operating in New York since 2000.

Before the RHIC was operational, a similar battle was fought over its safety.

The consensus among scientists appears to align with the new report, and with Cern's theorists.

Dr Adrian Kent, a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge, argued that scientists had not effectively estimated the risks of a "killer strangelet" catastrophe in a 2003 paper.

How improbable does a cataclysm have to be to warrant proceeding with an experiment? According to Kent, this fundamental question had never been properly inspected

The LHC was scheduled to be functional in November 2007, but the start-up has been postponed several times.

An accident during a stress test for one of the LHC's "quadrupole" magnets brought a delay in March 2007.

The US laboratory that supplied the magnet said the apparatus experienced a "failure" when supporting structures "broke" according to the Cern website.

It later surfaced that the magnet had exploded in the tunnel near an important LHC detector prompting the facility to be evacuated.

In March, seven plaintiffs filed a complaint before the United States District Court in Hawaii, requesting a mandate against the opening of the LHC.

One plaintiff previously sought to bring a similar injunction against the RHIC over safety concerns.

The LHC in Geneva is expected to be operational later this summer.