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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 snowgirl ( 978879 ) * on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:12AM (#30665848) Journal

    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.

    I seem to recall that some physics thought that before the Trinity Explosion, that perhaps an atom explosion would vaporise the entire atmosphere.

    One guy on the site is even ranting about the LHC actually being a "quark cannon", and says that (paraphrasing) "cosmic rays are single atoms" and in the same sentence (because it's a runon, like this one) that we've never observed a quark in cosmic rays. All credibility is lost with that, and that's the problem with even debating this issue... the average person has no real decent understanding of the actual risks involved, but if they know about it, they get all paranoid, and someone breaks out the SciFi.

  • 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.
  • 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 []:

    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.

  • by Quiet_Desperation ( 858215 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @02:08AM (#30666184)

    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 LostCluster ( 625375 ) * on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @02:33AM (#30666344)

    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 trial, and now any money he touches belongs to the family of Ron Goldman.

  • Re:STFU (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @03:52AM (#30666714)

    The LHC will not destroy the world.

    If it doesn't, something else will. Soon.
    We have not heard from any other form of intelligent life after all the years looking for it.
    That can only mean intelligence brings self-destruction.

  • ...but wrong (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kupfernigk ( 1190345 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @06:13AM (#30667368)
    Epicycles do not depend on the Earth being the centre of the Universe. They are a way of approximating observations when you don't have ellipses and Kepler's laws to work with. I suspect one reason that Kupfernigk(Copernicus) delayed publication was that by the end of de Revolutionibus he had just as many epicycles and deferents as the Ptolemaic theory - because the observations he worked with were better and there was more to explain.

    Epicycles were used because they had, wait for it, predictive power - they predicted future events quite well. In the state of knowledge at the time, with observations made from the Earth, it was natural to use the Earth as the frame of reference. The simple heliocentric theory is equally "wrong" from that point of view - the center of the Sun is not the exact center of the Solar System.

  • Re:markyg (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rve ( 4436 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @06:33AM (#30667480)

    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).

    I am not a physiscist, but...

    The gravitational pull of a body with the mass of a sub atomic particle is not very great. It won't be sucking matter towards itself like a gravitational vacuum cleaner. Another particle would have to get extremely close to pass the event horizon:

    According to google, the event horizon is 2GM/c^2:

    So for a black hole with the mass of a proton:

    (2 x 6.7 e -11 * 1.7 e -27) / (3.0 e+8 ** 2) = 2.5e-54 meter. That distance is about 2.1e-39 times smaller than the radius of the proton, or some 1/7500th of the planck length.

    The escape velocity according to google is:
    v = sqrt(2GM/r)

    So with the proton mass black hole and at a distance of one proton radius, that would be about:

    sqrt((2 * 6.7e-11 * 1.7e-27) / 1.2e-15) = 1.4e-11 m/s

    Even something dead and buried moves faster than that due to thermal motion.

    If my thinking is correct, I don't see how a microscopic black hole would be capable of any accretion. I haven't dabbled in science in many many years, so what I wrote above is probably mostly wrong, but I doubt it's so wrong that these microscopic black holes actually do function as an all devouring inescapable cosmic vacuum cleaner.

  • Re:...but wrong (Score:3, Interesting)

    by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @07:52AM (#30667908) Homepage Journal

    Epicycles had terrible predicting power, they had to be adjusted constantly and the adjustments required made the epicycle idea mostly unusable. At the same time when epicycles were in use others suggested that the idea can be simplified if the Earth is not taken to be the center (or halfway from the center to be precise) but if the Sun was to be the center of motion. This did not catch on until much later.

  • by dimeglio ( 456244 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @10:00AM (#30668870)

    My bad: Try this one. []

  • 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.

  • Re:US LAW ? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by VJ42 ( 860241 ) * on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:37PM (#30672022)

    The British kangaroo system of libel law is a prime example.

    Not to defend the moronic state of libel law in this country, but many of the current problems are in large part down to case law created by one Judge: Mr Justice Eady.
    Hopefully a government will find time to implement statute to override his dumb judgements, but libel law isn't a big political topic, and hey, whilst the judgements are stupid, they bring money into the British justice system from abroad...

  • Re:Ugh (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @01:49PM (#30672200) Homepage

    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 holes could not be formed at the LHC.
    2. The black holes would have to be stable against spontaneous decay.
    3. The hypothetical mechanism of producing black holes would have to always produce electrically neutral ones (or else the earth would have already been destroyed by naturally occurring, charged black holes).
    4. There would have to be some reason why naturally occurring, electrically neutral black holes haven't destroyed all the white dwarfs and neutron stars.

    Evaluating the plausibility of these:

    1. I wouldn't bet a six-pack on it, but lots of theorists are working on theories involving extra dimensions. It's a long shot, but it's not crazy.
    2. This requires a violation of the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics (unitarity and time-reversal symmetry). However, we already know that the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics are incompatible with general relativity, so this isn't as crazy as it sounds.
    3. This would be very surprising, since there is no known reason for the production method to never produce anything with electric charge. Nevertheless, "surprising" isn't the same as "impossible."
    4. This is similar to #3.

    If you could assign probabilities to all of these, they'd be small probabilities. Multiplying all the small probabilities together, you get a very small probability, which is why physicists aren't worried about the end of the world. Nevertheless, it's not completely impossible.

    If you want a relatively high-probability end-of-the-world scenario, I'll give you one. Pakistan and India have a nuclear war. Current attempts to model nuclear winter say that such an exchange might actually cause a nuclear winter. Agriculture breaks down world-wide. The human race becomes extinct.

  • Re:oh well (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Wednesday January 06, 2010 @03:34PM (#30673662) Homepage

    Since no one has guessed it:

    October 10th, 2010 is 10/10/10, or 101010 which is 42 in binary.

    Bonus is that you can rearrange the 2 digit month/day/year any way you want and still get 42.

Man is an animal that makes bargains: no other animal does this-- no dog exchanges bones with another. -- Adam Smith