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The Courts Science

The LHC, Black Holes, and the Law 467

Posted by kdawson
from the nobody-left-to-collect-damages dept.
KentuckyFC writes "Now that the physicists have had their say over the safety of the Large Hadron Collider, a law professor has produced a comprehensive legal study addressing the legal issue that might arise were a court to deal with a request to halt a multi-billion-dollar particle-physics experiment (abstract). The legal issues make for startling reading. The analysis discusses the problem with expert witnesses, which is that any particle physicists would be afraid for their livelihoods and anybody else afraid for their lives. How can such evidence be relied upon? It examines the well established legal argument that death is not a redressable injury under American tort law, which could imply that the value in any cost-benefit analysis of the future of the Earth after it had been destroyed is zero (there would be nobody to compensate). It asks whether state-of-the-art theoretical physics is really able to say that the LHC is safe given that a scientific theory that seems unassailable in one era may seem naive in the next. But most worrying of all, it points out that the safety analyses so far have all been done by CERN itself. The question left open by the author is what verdict a court might reach."
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The LHC, Black Holes, and the Law

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  • by LostCluster (625375) * on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:49AM (#30665704)
    Of course, this is relevant because in the event of an LHC-created black hole destroying the planet, we will of course launch into space a "lifeboat" containing a judge, defense and plaintiff lawyers, Rusty the Bailiff to keep everyone in line, and one token normal person to be the plaintiff. Justice will be served no matter what the damage to the planet is.
  • Assuming the LHC destroys the world with the LHC itself getting swallowed first and all of Earth going next and eventuallyd swallowing the Solar System, what assets would they have left? You should know better than to sue somebody without assets, particularly when you can't hire a lawyer because all your money is gone, all the lawyers are gone, and for that matter, you're gone too.

    • by aXis100 (690904) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:12AM (#30665842)

      If it actually occuurred, an LHC black hole wouldnt swallow the solar system. It wouldnt even swallow the moon. It would have the same mass as the earth and would continue to follow roughly the same orbit (not accounting for solar wind and photon momentum).

    • Nonsense! Everyone knows that in the event that the Earth is destroyed, jurisdiction will be handled by the Court Of Final Judgement, the Hon. F.S. Monster presiding. So you'll just have to make your case in front of him. But I should warn you, F.S. frowns upon worldly goods, and if you start talking about lost assets, you'll probably get "burned".
  • oh well (Score:4, Insightful)

    by nicolas.kassis (875270) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:54AM (#30665718)
    What's the point of living but to try to understand our universe and find the true answer to life,universe, and everything. Everything else is just fluff.
    • Re:oh well (Score:4, Funny)

      by LostCluster (625375) * on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:06AM (#30665802)
      We're past that climax... the answer's 42. Google it.
  • STFU (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:59AM (#30665746)

    The LHC will not destroy the world.

    • by Dr. Spork (142693)
      Seriously, this is the last and only comment that needs to be made on the matter.
      • by mevets (322601)

        If the LHC does turn out to be an "Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator", it will be the last and only comment. You win either way.
        Given the European sense of humour, I'm a bit surprised the LHC wasn't called the "Illudium Q-36".

    • Re:STFU (Score:4, Informative)

      by darkmeridian (119044) <william.chuang@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @02:43AM (#30666384) Homepage

      That's entirely the attitude the article addresses: hubris. The scientists don't think that it will explode, but do you understand the issues involved or are you blindly listening to them? No one really understands string theory or what might happen when you smash particles at high energies. The chances are small that a major event would occur. However, if the LHC causes great damages, who pays? Would Anonymous Coward be held responsible?

      • Re:STFU (Score:5, Informative)

        by wagnerrp (1305589) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @03:41AM (#30666674)
        It's not hubris, it's simple probability. The energy levels of the LHC are not that impressive, they are just several times greater than we have ever before produced in a controlled lab environment. The LHC is only rated for operation at 14TeV (1.4e13), while the highest energy cosmic rays recorded are on the order of 100EeV (1e20). If these particles have hit Earth at sufficient frequency that we have detected them on several occurrences, and we haven't yet collapsed into a black hole, what are the chances that the LHC will do so?
        • Re:STFU (Score:5, Funny)

          by Aceticon (140883) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @05:06AM (#30667046)

          It's not hubris, it's simple probability. The energy levels of the LHC are not that impressive, they are just several times greater than we have ever before produced in a controlled lab environment. The LHC is only rated for operation at 14TeV (1.4e13), while the highest energy cosmic rays recorded are on the order of 100EeV (1e20). If these particles have hit Earth at sufficient frequency that we have detected them on several occurrences, and we haven't yet collapsed into a black hole, what are the chances that the LHC will do so?

          but ... but ... but ... the LHC is on the French-Swiss border: that must affect the laws of physics somehow ...

      • Re:STFU (Score:5, Informative)

        by AK Marc (707885) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @03:57AM (#30666742)
        No one really understands string theory or what might happen when you smash particles at high energies.

        Correct.

        The chances are small that a major event would occur.

        Incorrect. For billions of years, the earth has been bombarded with energies higher than what the LHC is capable of producing. However, they were random in nature and couldn't be observed because they were gone before anyone knew they happened. The LHC approximates some of these larger collisions. They can do nothing there that hasn't happened trillions of times already. And if it was going to do something, it would have by now.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by jopsen (885607)
      The LHC will destroy the world. Just as it is a well known fact that if we try to build a space elevator, workers will spontaneously begin speaking different languages...
      </sarcasm>
  • What if it just blow up / messed up part of the earth and not all of it how will the court look at that?

  • US LAW ? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tensor (102132) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:03AM (#30665778)
    Who cares what the American law says ? Its built by CERN, its in the France-Switzerland border ...
    • Re:US LAW ? (Score:4, Funny)

      by LostCluster (625375) * on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:13AM (#30665854)

      I think CERN would be declared an Terrorist Organization and the scientists individually deemed Enemy Combatants.

    • True.

      It's an interesting series of arguments, too bad the LHC's name and organization seems to be plugged into the argument to capitalize on the fear and hysteria about something that the LHC will never be able to do.

      The LHC is simply not going to be able to make anything that swallows Earth. We know that because countless far more energetic particles hit Earth over a period of billions of years, and yet Earth still exists. The LHC just can't compete against that. The people that think otherwise might as

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      Whoa there bucko. Sweden is next to France?!
    • Re:US LAW ? (Score:5, Funny)

      by msimm (580077) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:57AM (#30666116) Homepage
      Yes but it's important and THAT makes it American! ;-)
  • Ugh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dexmachina (1341273) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:04AM (#30665784)

    It asks whether state-of-the-art theoretical physics is really able to say that the LHC is safe given that a scientific theory that seems unassailable in one era may seem naive in the next.

    And yet again, a basic understanding of the fundamental scientific process causes people to say foolish things. "Previous scientific theories were proven wrong, so we shouldn't trust current theories" blah blah blah. Previous scientific theories weren't proven wrong, just incomplete, as has been said thousands upon thousands of time. Under restricted conditions, they are still "right"- in the scientific sense of the word, which is "matches observation to our more precise measurements". OK, so people want to make the, "LHC is an extreme condition and so outside the tested realm of theory." Yeah. No. Not at all. The exact same theory which predicts that black holes could be created predicts that they are also being constantly created in the earth's atmosphere. And the exact same theory predicts that they evaporate via Hawking radiation, etc. You don't get to have it both ways. And this is where people's arguments get really silly: "But, you could be completely wrong!" Yes. I suppose we could. But in that case, we could be wrong in an infinite number of ways. And an earth destroying black hole would require us to be wrong in a very specific way on par with, "Our knowledge of electricity could be wrong and some magical circuit with just the right components will end all of reality as we know it."

    Arguing that theoretical physicists would be likely to be biased is, if possible, even dumber than the LHC panic arguments. You don't need a PhD to understand that the whole hysteria is retarded. In fact, suggesting that you do is creating a false dichotomy: either you need to be a particle physicist, or you're just taking their word for it. Seriously, this "analysis" will probably do more harm than good.

    Now can we as a society please move on?

    • by Nemyst (1383049)

      Our knowledge of electricity could be wrong and some magical circuit with just the right components will end all of reality as we know it.

      Ah, so you've read Steorn's business document.

    • Re:Ugh (Score:5, Funny)

      by causality (777677) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:14AM (#30665862)

      Previous scientific theories weren't proven wrong, just incomplete, as has been said thousands upon thousands of time.

      So, care to calculate some epicycles for us?

      • Re:Ugh (Score:5, Insightful)

        by dexmachina (1341273) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:40AM (#30665988)
        I know you probably meant that as a joke, but the fact is that the epicycle model fit observable data quite nicely. A physical model may be incorrect, but a mathematical model, which is what actually makes testable hypotheses, that fits the data can only ever be incomplete.
      • So, care to calculate some epicycles for us?

        Sure, just as soon as I can get some Phlogiston [wikipedia.org] to power my N-ray [wikipedia.org] generator.

    • by sco08y (615665)

      Now can we as a society please move on?

      If, perchance, they actually listened to your argument, I'd say "yes, next let's move on to patenting business models" except I'd be more worried about some equally unlikely shit happening.

      Like the Earth being swallowed by a black hole.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by bcrowell (177657)

      And an earth destroying black hole would require us to be wrong in a very specific way on par with, "Our knowledge of electricity could be wrong and some magical circuit with just the right components will end all of reality as we know it."

      As a physicist, I'm not losing a lot of sleep over the LHC-ends-the-world scenario. However, I think you've overstated the case a little bit.

      Here's what would have to happen for it to be the end of the world:

      1. There would have to be extra dimensions, or else black ho
  • Going in circles (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CopaceticOpus (965603) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:04AM (#30665786)

    The scientific theories that are relied upon to show the LHC is safe may eventually prove to be false, or at least short-sighted. However, these same theories are what led people to consider the possibility of black hole production in the first place. If those theories are taken away, then the reason for concern also disappears.

    If we are going to take the prevailing theories to be unreliable, then all that remains is common sense. Someone might raise the concern that a car collision would lead to a devastating black hole, if it happened in exactly the wrong way. There is no reason to take this concern seriously given the number of accidents which the earth has already survived. Similarly, there is no reason to think that the LHC will produce anything more dramatic than the high-energy particle collisions occurring in our atmosphere every day.

    • Someone might raise the concern that a car collision would lead to a devastating black hole

      They are what we in the industry call "retarded"
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by IrquiM (471313)

      However, these same theories are what led people to consider the possibility of black hole production in the first place. If those theories are taken away, then the reason for concern also disappears.

      What I haven't seen is a person that understand the current theories, argue for the possibility of a black hole that could swallow the earth being generated by the LHC. I choose to believe the people who understand the theories.

  • by NtroP (649992) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:05AM (#30665794)
    Seems to me the same arguments could be made for the "expert witnesses" (and if you take the Climate-Change-will-destroy-humanity crowd at their word, the cost-benefit analysis as well) in the AGW debate.
    • by bunratty (545641)
      Who is the Climate-Change-will-destroy-humanity crowd? I haven't heard of anyone saying that climate change will destroy humanity. Climate change could prove disastrous, but disasters happen all the time and don't wipe humanity off the face of the planet.
  • I'm in the process of reading TFA, but if the summary given is correct there's a serious problem. Suppose I'm a nutjob who claims that some new technologies will destroy the world. Say releasing the new Apple tablet. Or maybe the latest Linux security patch. There's some tiny but non-zero probability that I'm correct. If one takesserious the argument as given " that death is not a redressable injury under American tort law, which could imply that the value in any cost-benefit analysis of the future of the
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by nedlohs (1335013)

      You misunderstand the meaning of the statement, it has the opposite implication.

      Death is not redressable, which means if you do in fact destroy the entire planet the cost of doing so is 0. So you might as well go ahead and take the risk no matter how large.

      • Say you find out on 1 Jan 2011 that the Earth will be swallowed by a brand new black hole on 1 Jan 2111. You spend the next 100 years working to move the human race to Mars and building new infrastructure there to support them. That 100 years of effort has a finite value which could be calculated. That way you know the cost of destroying the Earth.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by LostCluster (625375) *

        There's a morbid mathematical-legal job called an actuary who practices in dealing with the estimated worth of people. See, there's no value in a person's death, but what the person would have earned should they have not died at that point can be computed and awarded to to the estate in a wrongful death lawsuit. Go ask O.J. Simpson. The LAPD bungled the investigation to the point there was reasonable doubt in the criminal trial... but O.J. got held liable on the more-likely-than-not standard in the civil tr

  • by Exp315 (851386) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:11AM (#30665836)
    We're neither dead nor alive so long as nobody looks into this issue. :-)
  • IN NO EVENT WILL THE LHC BE LIABLE TO ANY THIRD PARTY FOR ANY SPECIAL, COLLATERAL, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, CONSEQUENTIAL, EXEMPLARY, PUNITIVE, OR ENHANCED DAMAGES ("EXCLUDED DAMAGES"). EXCLUDED DAMAGES INCLUDE COSTS OF INSPECTION, REMOVAL, AND REPLACEMENT COSTS, REPROCUREMENT COSTS (INCLUDING MAGRATHEA'S ADMINISTRATIVE AND PERSONNEL COSTS) OF REPLACEMENT OR SUBSTITUTE PLANETS, LOSS OF GOODWILL, LOSS OF REVENUE OR PROFITS, AND LOSS OF USE, WITHOUT REGARD TO WHETHER LHC HAS BEEN NOTIFIED IN ADVANCE OF THE POSSI

  • by NotSoHeavyD3 (1400425) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:21AM (#30665888)
    I mean they make it sound like when something turns into a black hole it gains "More gravity" and sucks everything around into it which is utterly not true. (If a stellar mass BH went through our solar system the most likely thing it would do to the Earth is distort it's orbit and or move the Sun.) I mean we're talking about creating black holes so small they could literally go straight through a proton and miss all the quarks inside, sucking up nothing. Hey that reminds me, electrons and quarks don't have a size, they're singularities.(Kind of like the things they want to make in the LHC.) However they've never been observed to act like a BH even though you'd think they would. So that makes me think even if they made a singularity that small it wouldn't act like a BH either.
    • by Virak (897071)

      I've never heard any physicist say such an absurd thing. Perhaps you are confusing them with creators of popular "science" fiction?

      • Really? Funny I think I've heard Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about what would happen if a BH went through our solar system. (He made it sound like it would actually suck up the Earth.) I don't remember any thing about the most likely scenario, it would pass through and disturb the orbits of the planets but most likely actually never get close enough to suck up any planet at all. (At least for a stellar mass BH that would be the most likely scenario.)
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Hey that reminds me, electrons and quarks don't have a size, they're singularities.

      I thought strings have replaced the point singularities. Granted were talking the Planck distance here, but still not a dimensionless point.

      • by DMUTPeregrine (612791) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @02:37AM (#30666360) Journal
        "String theory" is just a hypothesis. No one's managed to actually predict anything useful with it. Until a testable prediction is confirmed it's nothing but interesting math. Also, the strings are one dimensional singularities, so even if it's correct they're still singularities (like a ring black hole.)
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          Oh, yeah, I know. I've read three books on it now, and the main support seems to be "but the maths work so well!" :)

          Then they get to the part about needing a particle accelerator with a diameter that could contain the Oort Cloud just to do basic tests. After that is the chapter on holographic theory, and I realize the theoretical physics world has basically gone completely wrong in the head.

          But, hey, the maths work out! All those nasty zeros in infinities go away.

    • by dkf (304284) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @02:46AM (#30666402) Homepage

      Hey that reminds me, electrons and quarks don't have a size, they're singularities.

      You fail at quantum mechanics.

      Electrons aren't particles in any truly useful sense, they're waves. If they weren't, we wouldn't have electron orbitals and absolutely none of organic chemistry could work. (OK, they're quantized waves, which gives them some particulate characteristics, but not ones like "position" in any sense that matches the concept used for singularities.)

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by razvan784 (1389375)
      Electrons and quarks are NOT singularities, they're described by wave equations. They're not balls or points or anything like that either. They are "spread out" in space and time if you will. Only because they have significant momentum due to thermal motion, their spread is so small they look like points. If you cool them down to fractions of a kelvin you get Bose-Einstein condensates that actually do look like waves.
    • Event horizon (Score:3, Informative)

      by tepples (727027)

      electrons and quarks don't have a size, they're singularities.

      Every singularity has a size, namely that of its surrounding event horizon [wikipedia.org].

  • I think the take home lesson is thus: Scientists need to rise above the rabble and babble of human peccadilloes and attempt to be more humble, less confrontational ("Anyone who thinks the LHC is dangerous is a twat") and more rational. The LHC is a good object lesson in this regard. Climate change is another. As a species we are to the point where we can significantly damage the earth and there is no class of human being that is even remotely capable of dealing with these issues. Science, as a body, ne
  • by KonoWatakushi (910213) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:39AM (#30665984)

    The argument for safety is very simple, and it doesn't require a physicist to make it. Sadly, it does require common sense, which is likely to be absent in this case.

    Anyway, here it is: the Earth has been--and continues to be--bombarded by cosmic rays of immensely greater energies than found in the LHC. After billions of years without incident, one can only conclude that any problems must not be very significant, as we are here after all.

    We aren't off the hook though; even if the LHC may not be capable of destroying the Earth, the lawyers are certainly doing a fine job.

  • by rudy_wayne (414635)

    Is the LHC dangerous. Quite possibly. Will it destroy the world? Ask British physicist Brian Cox: "Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat."

    I think that sums it up.

    • Re:No (Score:5, Interesting)

      by MichaelSmith (789609) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:46AM (#30666026) Homepage Journal

      Brian Cox: "Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat."

      To which I will invoke Clarke's first law [wikipedia.org]:

      When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

      Arthur C Clarke would have loved this debate BTW. I am sorry he can't be here. I am off to read Childhoods End again.

      • Re:No (Score:4, Insightful)

        by AK Marc (707885) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @04:09AM (#30666798)
        When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

        I once asked a distinguished but elderly scientist whether there was a large elephant on my head. He said he thinks that a large invisible elephant sitting on my head is impossible. Since he is very probably wrong, that means it is more likely than not that I've had an elephant sitting on my head for many years and didn't know.

        In other words, that's just silly. The LHC will produce smaller collisions than found in nature. It just does it where we can see the results. It has the same chance (I'll grant as non-zero) of destroying the planet as crashing the latest Ford over at the IIHS or NHTSA test sites. Just because no other crash has created a black hole among the tens of millions of automobile crashes in the wild and other test sites, doesn't mean the next one won't, right? The chance of that Ford making a black hole and consuming the earth is the same as the LHC. Except the LHC is approximating something that hasn't been done just tens of millions of times, but trillions of times or more. All without incident. Yet the one done by man will end the earth when all the ones in the wild never did? Sure, and the IIHS crash test will end the world as well.

        Arthur C Clarke would have loved this debate BTW.

        No one enjoys debating with the willfully ignorant. Arthur C Clarke included.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Just Some Guy (3352)

          Yet the one done by man will end the earth when all the ones in the wild never did?

          The other ones were Natural. These new ones are made from harsh chemicals and might give the Earth cancer.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by dkleinsc (563838)

        1. There exist distinguished but elderly scientists who are strong atheists (that is, believe that God cannot exist).
        2. Clarke's First Law.
        Ergo, God exists.

        Something seems a bit flawed there.

  • False premise (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Mr. Freeman (933986) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:47AM (#30666042)
    The lawyer is basing his findings on a false premise: "any particle physicists would be afraid for their livelihoods". This is not the case. There are a lot of particle physicists that are not working for CERN and whose research does no depend on CERN nor the LHC.

    Also the bit about "anybody else afraid for their lives". I am not afraid for my life.

    I am neither a particle physicist nor afraid for my life, there is no problem.
  • by meerling (1487879) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @05:46AM (#30667224)
    Let's see:
    flying monkeys crawling out your rectum > LHC destroying the world > homosexual leprechaun giving you magical money tree that grows $100 bills for leaves and has cocaine filled nuts

    Of course, it's kind of hard to prove any of those is absolutely impossible, but you sure can calculate them as having absurdly low odds.... (So low, that if you tried to count the zeros between the decimal point and the first non-zero digit you'd fall asleep long before you got to it. That's why scientists like using those funny looking math formulas most of the LHC haters can't understand.)

    Sorry Slashdotters, but I'm getting sick of this paranoid ignorant jihad to crucify a rather expensive but potentially critical piece of research.
    If you want to whine about how much money is being used, fine, it's a bloody lot. (Though it's less than the cost of 10 stealth bombers.)
    If you want to whine about how 'pure research' isn't useful, fine. (When electricity was still in the 'pure research' stage and the question was raised as to what use was it, a famous scientist replied "what use is a baby"...)
    If you want to spout conspiracy theories (yours or other peoples), please go back to your paranoid blogs and leave this stuff to people who actually passed grade school math and science classes without cheating. (Many slashdotters have actually passed college level classes on trig, calculus, and even physics.)

    Now lawyers are jumping into the mess when they aren't asked to.
    What are the lawyers going to do next, threaten to sue people for not preparing for the fantasized, err, 'predicted' 2012 world disaster?

    At least these media spawned circuses keeps the reporters from investigating my secret genesplicing experiments to create parasitic miniaturized colon dwelling hybridized eagle-macaques.

    Thanks, take a break, and laugh at the stupidity before you drown in it...
  • by qmaqdk (522323) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @10:38AM (#30669290)

    One would think the scientists are at least as worried about their lives as they are about their livelihood.

    Can you imagine them saying "Let's destroy the planet so that we can get this grant."?

    Doesn't really make any sense.

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