Black holes, grey goo and other matters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2008, 12:00am

If the plaintiffs who have launched a lawsuit against a new multibillion-dollar particle collider at a US court in Hawaii are right, we may be in for extinction. But don't worry! Our last moment would come so fast that we wouldn't know what had hit us. Describing it as a split-second doomsday would not even be metaphorically correct because time itself, in the event, would probably have little meaning.

Fourteen years and US$8 billion later, hundreds of the world's best physicists and engineers are planning to power up the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva this summer in the hope of simulating primordial events that took place a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, or the creation of the universe. They have overcome countless obstacles, from funding cuts to political backbiting and construction delays. But there is just one more barrier in their way to finding our ultimate origin, and it's making news the world over.

Former US radiation safety officer Walter Wagner and his partner in the lawsuit, Luis Sancho, have argued in their court filings that the particle experiment could generate a black hole that could gobble up the Earth - or turn it into a dense dead lump of 'strange matter'. Of course, a US court has no jurisdiction over the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern), which is building the collider. But the US Department of Energy and a federally funded laboratory play such a crucial role in running the collider that a restraining order to stop their participation would be enough to pull the plug - and save humanity from destruction. Or so Mr Wagner and Mr Sancho think.

Most physicists dismiss the doomsday scenario as nonsense and the pair as a couple of crackpots. But what the two warn against is not completely without basis, albeit highly unlikely. Some versions of string theory say black holes might be generated under conditions created in the collider but would evaporate quickly and pose no threat at all. Other theorists say it would be impossible to create a black hole from it. The US judge looks likely to throw the case out.

But, while no one should lose any sleep about being caught up in a black hole, the lawsuit raises some legitimate issues about the public's right to know and the responsibility of scientists to explain their work. European governments have, by and large, adopted as policy the so-called precautionary principle. This is used to judge whether a new science or technology should be introduced to consumers and citizens. This principle has been cited, successfully, against genetically modified food, which has been increasingly rejected across Europe, though generally accepted by consumers in the US.

Mr Wagner and Mr Sancho argue that Cern has failed to use the principle properly in investigating the collider's safety. It is, of course, a dodgy principle because, first, it is not scientific and, second, it's a great political tool to raise questions about products from countries you don't like.

Still, behind their paranoia and nonsense lurk a widespread distrust and fear of science and technology. Sometimes, this can be a rational fear of the unknown. Manhattan Project scientists, who created the first atom bomb, feared at an early stage that they might trigger an unstoppable chain reaction that could set the atmosphere alight. They went through the trouble of calculating the odds of that happening before concluding it was highly unlikely.

Nanotechnology has been all the rage in recent years but people have warned that self-replicating nano-particles - created to manufacture products from clothes to computer chips - might reproduce uncontrollably and consume everything in their path, turning the world into 'grey goo'.

The line between rational concern about a new science and paranoia is easily crossed. Only rational and informed discussions can address this. Scientists, most of them publicly funded, shouldn't be so arrogant as to simply dismiss non-scientific critics. They should take the time to explain themselves.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post