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The Case of the Collider and the Great Black Hole

The physicists have had their say. Now a legal study asks how a court might handle a request to halt a multibillion-dollar particle-physics experiment. The analysis makes for startling reading.

  • January 5, 2010

For particle physicists, the Large Hadron Collider is a long-awaited dream that has finally come true. The LHC should supply a steady stream of data for the community to number crunch and that should lead to some fundamental new insights into the nature of the universe. It also guarantees jobs and careers for a generation of physicists around the world.

But there is another group who say that CERN, the organisation that has built and runs the collider, has not done enough to reassure the world that the work is safe. The fear is that the collider can produce black holes that might gobble up the Earth. Various legal actions have failed to halt the work, not because of the scientific or safety issues involved, but because of problems of jurisdiction. CERN has an immunity from court action in its member states and a US court action in Hawaii found that it did not have the jurisdiction to proceed.

Today, we get a fascinating new perspective on the issue from Eric Johnson, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Dakota School of Law in Grand Forks. Johnson asks what a court should do with a preliminary-injunction request to halt a multibillion-dollar particle-physics experiment that plaintiffs claim could create a black hole that will devour the planet.

This is a problem, he says, that has all the hallmarks of a law-school classic. And to give him his due, it’s certainly a gripping read.

Johnson begins with an account of the history of the debate behind the science and its safety. This is worth a read by itself because Johnson writes with flare, clarity and an excellent grasp of the issues that scientists grapple with. He is not a physicist but uses his journey of understanding as a way of benchmarking how a court might come to grips with the issues involved.

Having set the scene, he then introduces the unique legal problems that this case presents. “The enormity of the alleged harm and the extreme complexity of the scientific factual issues combine to create seemingly irreducible puzzles of jurisprudence,” says Johnson.

For example, one problem that a court might have to deal with is the expert witness. The problem here is one of independence. There is a huge amount at stake for these witnesses. On the one hand, an injunction would threaten the career of almost any particle physicist who gave evidence. On the other hand, there is the threat to the Earth.

“The experts are either afraid for their livelihoods or afraid for their lives,” writes Johnson.

One way round this is to carry out a cost-benefit analysis but this soon runs into problems too. How do you value the future of entire planet? You could argue that it is infinite in which case any risk that it will be destroyed, no matter how tiny, is too much. Another argument, well established in law, is that there can be no award to a dead person’s estate. “Death is simply not a redressable injury under American tort law,” says Johnson.

By this argument, the downside of a particle-accelerator disaster that destroys the planet–assuming it is quick–is nothing. The cost-benefit analysis simply blows up in our faces.

There is a way out of these legal conundrums, however. Johnson describes four categories of meta-analysis that could be used to address the black hole case.

One line of analysis focuses on the possibility that the scientific theory upon which the safety assurances are based may be defective. He points out that these safety assurances have not yet stood the test of time. In fact, the various safety assurances that CERN has given over the last ten years or so have changed several times as new ideas and challenges have arisen. That’s worrying.

And in any case, there is a more general point. Many scientists, even particle physicists, would surely agree that a scientific theory that seems unassailable in one era may seem naïve in the next.

This raises the important question of whether state-of-the-art theoretical physics is up to the task of making a trustworthy prediction that the LHC is safe.

Then there is the possibility that the scientists at CERN who have given the safety assurances have simply made a mistake in their thinking. Is it really possible that a team of world class scientists could make such an error?

Well, yes. One fatal example is the 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear test which was supposed to yield 5 megatons but actually yielded 15 megatons because of flawed calculations. In this case, a Japanese trawler fishing outside the exclusion zone was engulfed by fallout killing one of the crew.

Then there were the calculations that physicists used to reassure the public that another accelerator called RHIC was safe. These too turned out to be seriously flawed.

But perhaps the most worrying problem is the possibility of groupthink, that particle physicists have simply convinced themselves that the LHC is not dangerous and will brook no alternative view. There are some other examples of this in science, perhaps the most high profile one being the Columbia space shuttle tragedy.

Johnson says this: “The report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (“CAIB”) found that decision makers focused on information that tended to support their expected or desired result–that the foam strike that ultimately doomed Columbia did not represent a safety of flight issue.”

Indeed CAIB said: “In our view, the NASA organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as the foam.”

It would be hard to rule out the possibility that a similar form of groupthink infects the particle physics community. On the contrary, there is evidence that physicists have little time for anyone who questions their safety assurances. Johnson quotes the British physicist Brian Cox who is reported to have said: “Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat.”

That is not an encouraging sign.

But perhaps the most powerful argument that all is not well with CERN’s safety assurances is the fact that the organisation has carried out the safety studies itself. Here is Johnson’s take:

“It is remarkable to think for a moment how CERN’s situation might be viewed if, instead of operating a particle accelerator, CERN was a developer of pharmaceuticals. If a pharmaceutical firm attempted to take a drug to market based on the safety assessment of a panel of five of its employees, who in turn relied on the scientific work of one employee and one other scientist with a pending visiting position with the firm–it would be a scandal of epic proportions.”

Having presented the case, Johnson himself is remarkably relaxed about the issue. “My motivation in writing is certainly not to engender fear. I have no apprehension to share. Nor is it my intent or my desire to shut down the LHC. … My argument is one of law,” he says. He does not not predict how such a legal case might pan out. Instead, he says it would be a matter for a court decide (presuming one could be found with the necessary authority to hear it).

Nevertheless, it is hard to come away from Johnson’s analysis with the impression that the global public interest has been well served in this matter.

Johnson says this:

“While it seems absurd, in the abstract, that a group of apparently normal people could risk the entire planet in the course of carrying out a science experiment, the prospect does seem distinctly plausible once one takes a look at the details. Such a disaster is not likely, to be sure, but it does appear plausible enough to give one pause.”

Johnson is well aware that this case may never come to court (although he points out that one like it that raises the same issues may well come about in the future).

So the real test will be how the particle physics community responds, whether with spittle-flecked ire or reasoned argument.

There is another possibility of course; that they’ll simply attempt to ignore it.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0912.5480: The Black Hole Case: The Injunction Against the End of the World

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