'Black hole' machine could destroy planet: lawsuit
Updated Sat. Apr. 5 2008 7:04 AM ET
Parminder Parmar, CTV.ca News
An American and a Spaniard have launched a lawsuit to stop scientists from firing up a machine they fear could destroy not just life on Earth but the planet itself.
International scientists, including dozens from Canada, are about to launch the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27-kilometre long particle accelerator built near Geneva, Switzerland. It will shoot beams of protons at each other in an effort to recreate conditions that resemble what the universe might have been like in the milliseconds after the Big Bang.
"We want to probe the most basic particles and constituents (and we're) trying to understand how matter was made," Robert McPherson, a University of Victoria physics professor who is working on the project, told CTV.ca in a phone interview from Vancouver.
In the process, scientists may end up creating miniature black holes -- areas of space that have gravitational pulls so strong that not even light can escape.
The more matter a black hole pulls in, the stronger it becomes. And that's what worries Walter Wagner, the American who is suing to temporarily stop the project. He says the creation of these black holes here on Earth, no matter how small, may unleash a chain reaction that could destroy the planet.
Wagner says there's a possibility that black holes could just get bigger and bigger as they pull more and more matter into themselves.
"Eventually, all of Earth would fall into such growing micro-black-holes, converting Earth into a medium-sized black hole, around which would continue to orbit the moon, satellites, and the (International Space Station)," according to court papers Wagner, along with a citizen of Spain, filed in Honolulu.
In other words, Wagner asserts the LHC is a machine that will end up causing the Earth to eat itself -- perhaps in less than a century. It may sound fantastic, like a plotline out of a James Bond movie where an evil scientist holds the earth for ransom with a deadly weapon, but Wagner says the possibility isn't science fiction.
"Science fiction can be very strange and sometimes it can come very true. This is in the realm of possibilities where fiction can become fact," Wagner told CTV.ca in a telephone interview from his home in Honolulu.
Wagner, an education consultant who studied physics at Berkeley, says scientists working on the project haven't done enough studies to make sure the scenario he envisions won't actually occur. The suit -- which is filed against various U.S. agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency -- aims to get a restraining order to stop work on the project until more safety studies are completed.
McPherson admits small black holes may be created, but he says the concerns are overblown. He says there is virtually no possibility that any black hole that scientists may create at the Large Hadron Collider will end up absorbing the Earth.
"Assuming our wildest fantasies, how much matter can one of these black holes consume in a second, in a year, or even in several billion years?" asks McPherson.
"A black hole we could make at the LHC would only consume a tiny fraction of a gram of matter from Earth. There's no possibility of causing any damage to the Earth," he said.
McPherson says the black holes will decay and disappear quickly. He adds that what scientists are trying to do in a laboratory setting at the LHC happens in nature daily.
"The Earth is constantly being bombarded by cosmic rays. Many of them have much higher energies than what we can create with the LHC. If something dangerous was being made in these interactions it would already have happened in cosmic ray interactions," he said.
But that's no comfort to Wagner. He says the LHC is like a factory that creates a waste product without any way to dispose of it. If he's correct, the factory won't get rid of the byproduct. Instead, the byproduct will dispose of the factory -- and everything else.