On September 10, 2008 the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) is scheduled to reach another major milestone: the first injection of a proton beam into one channel of its enormous circular accelerator (27 kilometer circumference) astride the border between Switzerland and France near Geneva. Actual collisions of the two counter-circulating proton beams won’t occur until October 21.
The rather modestly named LHC, designed to shed light on some of the most fundamental questions about matter, including why matter has mass, is already one of the greatest technological achievements in history, just to have attained operability, no matter what discoveries it leads to. The matter-of-fact name was perhaps deliberately chosen so as not to raise comparisons with the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), whose name sounded a bit like an amusement park ride, and which was canceled by the US Congress in 1993 after billions of dollars had already been spent on it and cost overruns had made it a popular target; especially as a project in Texas started during a Republican administration. However, both in terms of the superconducting magnets required for its operation and the ultra high energy proton collisions it will produce, the LHC is by rights an SSC, albeit with only about a third the center-of-mass collision energy of what the one in the US was supposed to achieve.
The LHC project has not only managed to keep sufficient money coming in from various European governments to continue its construction over the last ten years; it has also been successfully dealing with a new threat to its operation, one which the SSC never had to contend with: the end-of-the-worlders. Although I wasn’t aware of it until a couple of months ago, there has been an effort going on for quite some time to halt, through legal intervention, the starting up of the LHC. This real-life drama resembles the movie scenario I imagined years ago and sketched in my post Dangerous Experiments, which I made before learning of the efforts to stop the LHC.
As the start of LHC experiments has drawn nearer, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of people coming to this blog from Google searches related to the safety of the LHC, led here by links to an earlier post I made about it. It’s obvious that the stop-the-LHC campaign has succeeded in giving a good number of people the false idea that legions of alarmed “scientists” are trying to halt the LHC experiments. I hope this post will show just how farcical (and already routed) this army of (two) scientists opposed to the LHC is, thus helping to allay fears of an LHC-induced catastrophe.
The supposed danger of the LHC is based on the idea that high-energy collisions of the LHC proton beams might result in the production of microscopic black holes or hypothetical particles called strangelets and magnetic monopoles, which could, it is advanced, interact catastrophically with normal matter.
In contrast to my movie scenario, in this real-life drama the persons first raising the challenge to the experiment were not the ones who made the speculative calculations pointing to the possible production of the exotic objects (and who, it must be noted, saw no danger in them), but rather a couple of characters who had already tried unsuccessfully to halt the start of another accelerator experiment (Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory) some ten years ago, based on similar doomsday predictions, and who seem to specialize in imagining ways upcoming accelerator experiments might trigger massive destruction.
Since that other experiment whose safety they challenged has been running without the least hint of trouble for eight years, these would-be scientific Ralph Naders are, one would think, in danger of acquiring a reputation as “wolf-criers.” However, just because there wasn’t a wolf last time, doesn’t mean there is not one now, does it? Not logically, no. But let’s see some tracks or something.
Let it first be noted that there aren’t any particle physicists raising an alarm; not a one. The physics of microscopic black hole production is very speculative at this point and involves the existence of extra unobserved dimensions to the universe. While seeing them would thus be very exciting from the theoretical standpoint, the chance that any such objects would start gobbling up the world is nil, given that if such things can be produced in the LHC, they are being produced all the time by cosmic rays striking the Earth, and the Earth is still here. The same argument applies to all of the other potential exotic products. This is the CERN argument, but what of the scientists on the other side?
Since those making the original alarm cry (a “former nuclear safety officer” with an undergraduate biology degree, who sometimes claims to be a “nuclear physicist,” and a “science writer”) don’t really have sufficient credentials to impress many people on such issues, all of the recent anti-LHC propaganda has touted the concerns of two German scientists, who at least know how to write a paper full of equations.
Their doomsday predictions, however, are based on mutually exclusive scenarios, a point which the anti-LHC folks don’t mention, as it might make it seem they were saying “We’re not sure why it’s dangerous, but we’re just sure it is.” Though the anti-LHC web sites all refer to the “growing list” of scientists opposed to the tests, it pretty well comes down to a couple of men who have never worked in the relevant fields of physics; and the list of two shows no sign of growth.
CERN physicists and others have answered the arguments of the alarmists in a way that I find totally convincing. However, how can a non-scientist decide which scientists to believe? If the science is so clear why isn’t there unanimity? The first point I want to make is that, given the many thousands of scientists in the world, it is possible to round up a couple for almost any crazy idea. I recently came across a chemistry professor’s academic web page devoted entirely to the idea that the WTC towers had been destroyed by planted explosives rather than the airplanes full of jet fuel that slammed into them. And of course, who can forget the Berkeley professor who actively promotes the idea that the diseases and death brought on by AIDS has nothing to do with the AIDS virus (mere coincidence, unproven), but are instead due to drugs, including the very ones used to treat AIDS.
Still, given that there is a difference of opinion on such an important matter (even if it’s two without proven expertise against everybody with it); and given that the vast majority of us lack the training, education, and experience to judge the matter directly ourselves, it seems to me that an examination of the credentials, and to some extent the personalities, of the alarm sounders is warranted. The final decision for me is based on the categorical and definitive nature of the rejection of the alarmists’ claimed results by true experts in the relevant fields, but for those with less trust in expert authority a consideration of these other factors may carry some weight.
I can’t claim to know the motivation of these scientific opponents of the LHC, but the fact that the two “real scientists” turned up to oppose the LHC basically at the last minute, only as it was ramping up for its start, and after the efforts to stop it had already gotten lots of media attention, cannot help but raise the suspicion that the desire for celebrity, whether consciously acknowledged or not, played an important role in their decision to make some quick (and half-baked, as it turns out) calculations that support the idea that the LHC experiments are extremely dangerous and to go public with them as part of a legal action trying to stop the LHC.
The chance to be in the limelight (possibly even to be mentioned on this blog!) by becoming an important figure in a controversy that is already getting a lot of media attention has to be a major temptation to some. I imagine that each of the anti-LHC scientist pair (though their results are in conflict) believes his own results are correct or at least might be correct. Neither has said he was “sure” his calculations and speculations were correct, just that they could be right, so that the LHC should not start on schedule. They’re covered, right? Let us briefly consider their credentials and histories, neither of which inspire confidence.
An anti-LHC website, in referring to one of the eleventh-hour alarmists, includes the phrase “German Astrophysicist Dr. Rainer Plaga concludes in his August 10, 2008 paper…,” which sounds pretty impressive. This online “paper,” however, turns out to be a “preprint” with the notation at the bottom of the first page “submitted to Elsevier,” which is not very enlightening to me, as Elsevier is a very large publishing house with many scientific journals and academic science books on its lists. In any case, it is not at this point a peer-reviewed publication, nor is it likely ever to be one. Plaga once worked at the Max-Planck-Institut für Physik in Munich, but now appears to be at the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) in Bonn, presumably no longer engaged in astrophysics, except perhaps on his own time.
Plaga’s personal web page (rplaga.tripod.com) bears this motto (from Karl Popper): “If you think you finally solved a problem, everything is lost.” This could be interpreted in various ways, I suppose, but given some of the other items on his page, I think it may refer to Plaga’s own propensity to advance theoretical results that he later has to retract after errors have been detected.
He chronicles one such evolution on the subject of neutrino theory. Just to quote a few phrases there: “Even though the issue discussed below seemed ‘very clear’ to me in 2002, it was not.” He had already told of his initial mistakes on the same topic:
“At that time I was absolutely sure I understood this issue quite well. In spite of this after posing me some questions she said: ‘You know what Rainer, I feel you do not really understand this deeply.’ I became a bit angry: ‘No, *you* are too dumb to understand.’ A few days later I came back to her and said: ‘I am sorry: you were right, I did not understand it at all.’”
”In 1996 I wrote a manuscript about this issue that came to the conclusion that neutrinos are Weyl particles… This paper was wrong. In 2001 after countless further discussions I submitted a correction.”
Plaga displays an admirable ability to acknowledge and correct past mistakes; however that does not seem to have had any effect on his willingness to advance new results with the utmost confidence, even when, or perhaps especially when, he encounters great skepticism or outright rejection from experts in the field.
Uh-oh. Now I’m reading a sad story about the treatment of Plaga’s theory of cosmic ray origins. Here we see Plaga raising the notion of fraud and conspiracy to uphold the prevailing theory he has challenged (technical details not important for this discussion):
“Since the work of Plaga and Dar mentioned below, not a single novel approach to the problem of the origin of low-energy cosmic rays (a problem of the century!) has been published. This seems almost surrealistic to me. In 2002 a paper by Enomoto et al. appeared in Nature … This paper is at the very verge of fraud, because its claims are in direct contradiction with facts given in the papers quoted by the authors. My manuscript from June 2002 pointing this out was refused by Nature, thus avoiding to inform its readership of a complete failure of its editorial procedures. Coresponsible for this desperate attempt to fabricate evidence in favour of the prevailing wisdom was [name omitted by this blogger as irrelevant]…”
Farther down, a passage makes one wonder if Plaga may not have become persona non grata in his research community, or at least to the editors of Nature. He writes (technical details again not important):
“The fact that this strong polarization was predicted in a paper from 1994 by G.Shaviv and A.Dar was not mentioned in the discovery paper by Nature. A Communications arising submitted by me in July 2003 to set the record straight was refused by Nature via an automatic junk mail delivered to me. A polite request for a brief statement explaining the rationale for avoiding to correct a seriously imbalanced report was never answered.”
I invite the interested reader to investigate more of Dr. Plaga’s web site. There he publishes the harshly critical comments about a paper he submitted (again on cosmic ray origins) made by scientists chosen to judge its fitness for publication. Plaga presents these peer review criticisms as allowing “interesting insight into the psychology of average researchers when faced with new ideas.” But the reviewers fault him, not for attempting to overthrow prevailing theory, but for doing it in a thoroughly inadequate way. The key fact is that Plaga sees himself as a superior intellect, whose theories are rejected because they are too revolutionary for ordinary minds. This history may be taken into account when looking at his latest attempt to make a name for himself.
Rather than casting doubt on the very existence of Hawking radiation as a means of rapidly evaporating microscopic black holes, which has been the main alarmist approach, Plaga asserts that everyone has greatly underestimated its danger. Plaga speculates that the Hawking radiation from a microscopic black hole is suppressed until a certain mass has been attained, at which point the amount of energy released in Hawking radiation may equal that of a large thermonuclear bomb, thus endangering at least the vicinity of CERN if not all of Europe and the world. I am very optimistic that Dr. Plaga will once again, and happily I think this time, have to acknowledge that he has made another error, once the LHC has run safely for a year or so. Or perhaps much sooner.
Plaga’s current “reviewers” (Giddings and Mangano of UC Santa Barbara and CERN, respectively) have already spoken, and they have detected a glaring error in his work on LHC dangers. Even assuming Plaga were right about the delayed onset of Hawking radiation, he overestimates it by a factor of 1023! That’s getting into Avagadro number territory.
I can’t help feeling a little bad for Plaga, but one has to recognize one’s limitations. Maybe Plaga’s humiliation, an unavoidable secondary effect of CERN’s need to publicly respond to his claims, through having the Giddings and Mangana analysis of his paper posted online will serve as a cautionary tale for those who feel tempted to jump into a controversy without sufficient thought or expertise. Perhaps Plaga will withdraw his objections. Whether or not he does, I expect we shall continue to see references to Plaga’s work, as though it remained fully worthy of respect and cause for grave concern, on the anti-LHC websites.
What about the other supposed big scientific gun of LHC alarmism? The “LHC Facts” blog describes him thusly: “To date, Dr. Otto E. Rössler is the most notable scientist to have the courage to speak out about the potential dangers of running the CERN Large Hadron Collider.”
“To date?” What are they waiting for? Isn’t it getting late? “Courage?” Is there something that these hypothetical scientists who share Rössler’s view fear even more than the end of the world? Or could it be that every last scientist wanting to wave a red flag has already surfaced?
Rössler turns out to be quite a strange fellow. He is an MD who stayed in academia, moved into biochemistry, and then made a name in the relatively new field of chaos theory. He seems to think of himself as a visionary, having founded a new field of physics called “endophysics,” which is supposed to take into account the observer’s inner state. Or something like that. Have you heard of it? Neither had I.
Recently, at the age of sixty-eight, Rössler, despite having no particle physics or blackhole physics credentials, announced that he had found important new results, alarmingly relevant to the destructive potential of microscopic black holes in LHC proton-proton collisions. Rössler variously estimates the likelihood of such blackhole production by LHC as being from 10% to 50% though he appears to have pulled these numbers out of a hat.
What’s more, he has calculated that any stable, electrically neutral, microscopic black hole created in the collider (which, according to his theory, they all would in fact be) would destroy the earth in a mere four years (or rather well before that since the four years is for the Earth to have become the size of a marble) instead of the millions of years, which other “doomsday” predictors have estimated. This is due to two results he claims to have obtained: no Hawking radiation at all and a nonlinear growth (just a hunch of his, it seems) of the black holes, so that they become “planet eaters” in a short time. Even without external discrediting, it’s obviously impossible that both Plaga and Rössler could be right.
According to the English text on another web site I encountered, which includes a video interview in German, which I unfortunately don’t speak, Rössler has a solution to the LHC danger. Move the LHC to the Moon! It would only cost about three times as much as to do it on Earth, according to his calculations.
OK, this makes it pretty clear the guy does not have a firm grasp on reality. I’m sure he is a nice man, and he looks very kindly in the video, but, as I viewed his smiling face, this thought came into my mind: “I wonder what the German word is for wacky tabacky.”
Rössler says he has submitted his LHC-alarm paper “simultaneously to Science, Nature and Z. Naturforsch. to get the best criticism of the world, with the publishing rights going to the one who accepts first.” These being three of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, Rössler is either making a joke within a paper supposedly written to stop the destruction of the world or demonstrating further divorcement from reality.
Can he seriously be thinking any journal at all would publish a paper that dissolves into a “street ballad” (which contains mysterious references to his being barred from his classroom and carried away by plainclothes police) and then goes on to talk about taking ten billion dollars from CERN to fund something called Lampsacus referred to in the ballad? I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to try to figure out exactly what Lampsacus is, but online searching revealed it to be some kind of internet community (I think) that Rössler has proposed. Here are a couple of quotes from Rössler on the Lampsacus web page. “So far, of course, Lampsacus does not exist and has no money….This is the most crazy homepage ever written.” Lots of craziness here for sure. Having absorbed that information, I can’t help wondering if his entry into the controversy may not have been a ploy by Rössler to publicize, if not finance, his pet imaginary project.
Back in the real world, a couple of real experts in the field of general relativity, at CERN’s request, have already examined Rössler’s work (the “scholarly” version with the mathematical details, not the one with the smiley faces and Lampsacus street ballad) and noted fundamental errors of understanding, essentially branding it the work of a novice who hasn’t mastered the basics of the theory. They say that he is trying to revive the flattened road-kill of an old conjecture, long since disproved by incontestable experimental evidence. I believe them: this is science. Since Rössler’s whole argument rests on an already disproved conjecture (which even he acknowledges must be erroneous!), I am willing to bet the planet on the falsity of his alarm cry. I don’t believe that the laws of the universe are capricious: once disproved, disproved for good. Beyond that, Rössler even committed further errors in attempting to apply the bad idea.
So, it is clear that CERN has had to devote quite a lot of time, money, and effort in answering safety questions raised by incompetent people. What is the proper way to respond to situations like these? Should physicists be required to go through the details of every claim someone without previous standing in the field comes up with in order to proceed with a new experiment at the frontier of knowledge?
I know from experience, and I imagine most physicists will know what I’m talking about, that there are many crackpots in the world who think they have found holes in Einstein’s work etc. and who are always eager to show their findings to any real physicist they encounter. Now, Plaga and Rössler obviously have a greater command of mathematics than the algebra-challenged dreamers I’ve encountered, but the same psychological phenomenon, the desire to do something great and overturn the existing scientific order, seems to extend to some scientists.
I think CERN has taken the right approach. However much a waste of time it may seem, the safety issues have to be addressed for maintaining public confidence, but also, I think, as a model for future behavior. Perhaps some experiment in the future really will be deemed too risky, as we start delving deeper into the structure of space-time and possibly hidden dimensions. Should even a small subset of actual researchers in a relevant field believe there to be a danger, then caution, diligence, and delay would be in order.
To summarize where matters stand with regards to LHC’s safety: really only a couple of men who are capable of putting their objections to the LHC experiments forward in a form that roughly follows that of a standard scientific presentation have done so; and their calculations and arguments have been judged slap-down wrong on very basic grounds with which no one with expertise in the relevant fields could quarrel.
A couple of gnats have flown into a bug zapper. And this is the best that the opposition to LHC has been able to come up with. All of the other potential dangerous scenarios anyone has been able to dream up, however implausible, have also been shown not to be of concern because of the failure to observe such effects already in nature as a result of naturally occurring cosmic ray events. The CERN page on LHC safety (http://public.web.cern.ch/Public/en/LHC/Safety-en.html) has all the debunking papers online for pdf download or viewing.
Having done the research to write this piece, I’m now less tolerant of this whole anti-LHC stunt than I was before. Of course, it is reassuring to see just how empty the arguments for the catastrophe scenarios are. But mixed with that is the frustration of recognizing that a couple of cynical publicity seekers (or possibly fortune seekers) along with a couple of incompetent scientists (one of them very eccentric, to put it mildly) with a desire to be in the limelight have been able to cause so much trouble for CERN, and consequently the advancement of science. Now I’m seeing stories of physicists involved in the LHC getting death threats, which is a natural result of the dishonest fear-mongering tactics of the anti-LHC group. I hope the security of CERN is really good.
Once again, hats off to CERN for remaining calm in the face of provocation, even as the opposition continues to trumpet thoroughly annihilated arguments against the LHC. As an American, I’d like to congratulate the European science community and governments for being able to bring the LHC to completion after we here in the USA were unable to sustain our effort on the SSC. Everyone who seeks to know more about how this beautiful universe works must be grateful. Best of luck to all involved!