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The Courts Science

The LHC, Black Holes, and the Law 467

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 aXis100 ( 690904 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:12AM (#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).

  • by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:28AM (#30665910)

    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.

  • Re:markyg (Score:3, Informative)

    by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:36AM (#30665966) Homepage Journal

    If you make a tiny black hole you start a race between evaporation and accretion. The black hole may well evaporate before it collects enough mass to be stable, but it is difficult to be completely sure about this. In theory the black hole can start from the mass of an atom and increase in mass to the mass of the Earth (plus us of course).

  • by KonoWatakushi ( 910213 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:39AM (#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 Surt ( 22457 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:55AM (#30666090) Homepage Journal

    It only has to escape an earth mass black hole, so about 12km/s will do.

  • by adonoman ( 624929 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @12:55AM (#30666092)
    There's plenty of scientists who can discuss these topics rationally and humbly, they just make for really boring television. Nobody wants to listen to details or actually learn the theories and math behind the headlines, we just want a fight.
  • by Gerzel ( 240421 ) * <brollyferret@gma ... m minus caffeine> on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:01AM (#30666130) Journal

    more likely it would have the same mass as an LHC, or rather a particle in the LHC which would almost certainly vaporize before it ran into another particle to swallow given the average density of particles on earth.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:09AM (#30666204)

    Actually, their energies (and velocities) are on a whole range that includes the velocities we are talking about achieving in the LHC. See the picture in this article [wikipedia.org] and note that the energies of LHC particles are on the order of 10^12 ev; that is, well within the middle of the range. Furthermore, the energy of a proton depends solely on its velocity; there is nothing else to talk about when it comes to protons. A proton from space is the same as a proton in the LHC.

  • by Dalambertian ( 963810 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:37AM (#30666358)
    You haven't heard climate scientists say we may have started a runaway greenhouse effect? Not that I think think this is possible with Earth, but the last time I took astronomy I was told that the runaway greenhouse effect is what made Venus inhospitable for life.
  • by DMUTPeregrine ( 612791 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:37AM (#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.)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:40AM (#30666374)

    1. Your average cosmic ray consists of a boson: i.e., a hydrogen ion or a neutron. The consequences of the earth getting hit by one at slow velocities are pretty minimal.

    2. There is very little about what the LHC does which remains "at rest," anyway. We're talking about ramming atoms into each other, yes? At high speeds?

  • Re:STFU (Score:4, Informative)

    by darkmeridian ( 119044 ) <william.chuangNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:43AM (#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?

  • by dkf ( 304284 ) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:46AM (#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.)

  • by razvan784 ( 1389375 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:48AM (#30666418)
    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.
  • by aXis100 ( 690904 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @02:40AM (#30666666)

    Oh yeah, I agree completely. Chances are such a small singularity would pass through all other matter and not touch anything.

    But on the outside chance that it did touch something and start growing, eventually consuming the earth, it would pretty much stop there. There's simply no other mass to pull in that isn't in a stable orbit.

  • Re:STFU (Score:5, Informative)

    by wagnerrp ( 1305589 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @02:41AM (#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, Informative)

    by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @02:57AM (#30666742)
    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.

    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.
  • by AlecC ( 512609 ) <aleccawley@gmail.com> on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @06:11AM (#30667678)

    Wrong. You just need a sufficient mass within a small enough volume; the graviton is something else again, about which the LHC says nothing. The theory causing panic is that the energy in a collision in the LHC is large enough that, if it were compressed into a volume the size of a single Planck length (believed to be the smallest possible length), it would form a black hole. This can be checked by simple arithmetic. This assumes, of course, that it can actually achieve (by unspecified means) the Planck length (10^-35 m, 10^20 times smaller than the proton), which is many orders of magnitude smaller than the smallest thing we know. Of course, according to current theory, such a tiny black hole will, as you say, evaporate within a time too small to measure. But, say the worriers, suppose the theory is wrong? Three answers to that:

    Firstly, the theory that says that the femto-black-hole will evaporate is from the same body of physics as the theory that says it can be created in the first place, You cannot pick and choose: if you throw out one half, you cannot call upon the other. So where is the theory that says the black holes will be created?

    Secondly, the chance that the particle is created at rest with respect to the Earth is negligible. With the huge amounts of energy pumped into this tiny mass, a minutely small residual energy will give this black hole a residual velocity far in excess of the Earth's escape velocity, so it will instantly whizz off into space at some significant fraction of C.

    Thirdly, even if it does stay in the earth's proximity (and if the the direction of whizz is through the Earth in the previous paragraph), it is so tiny that its chance of interacting with any other atoms is truly negligible. People have done the calculations, and the rate of accretion is so slow that it will not become a problem within the expected lifetime of the Earth.

  • by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @07:28AM (#30668120) Homepage Journal

    GGP failed at QM because quarks and electrons are *not* singularities.

  • Event horizon (Score:3, Informative)

    by tepples ( 727027 ) <tepples@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @08:13AM (#30668436) Homepage Journal

    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].

  • by bunratty ( 545641 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @08:32AM (#30668598)
    I've heard climatologists say that we may have reached a tipping point [time.com], meaning that no matter how much we reduce carbon dioxide emissions we could be locked into several degrees Celsius temperature rise and several meters of sea level rise. That will be costly, but it's not going to destroy humanity, or even human civilization.
  • by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @03:33PM (#30674500) Journal

    I'm not qualified to judge the arguments of the guy behind that web site on their merits alone. However, I've also read his story [plasmaresources.com], and it seems that everyone he tried to correspond with regarding his theories quite openly said that he's wrong. If he is to be believed, there is in fact a "global conspiracy" of GR scientists that covers up for the non-existence of black holes and some other stuff (e.g. he also claims that Big Bang theory is fundamentally wrong).

    Furthermore, he does seem to get pretty personal, with some implications that I don't like the sound of:

    "Anyone who was rude or otherwise behaved as a smart-arse I responded to bluntly. And I still do, since I refuse to turn cheeks, having discovered that the majority of people understand only the power of money and the persuasiveness of force. So if it's a fight they want then it's a fight they'll get. Pasty-faced softies however, cloistered away in universities are not much of a challenge; but there are so many of them, like cane toads in the breeding season. And so I now make no bones about how I view blokes who, like K. Thorne and Ned Wright, prance about with long pony tails and matching sandals, or wear earings and otherwise dress and behave like girls (most "male" physicsts nowadays)."

    which makes all other claims of misconduct toward him on behalf of other people highly suspect, in my opinion.

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