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Saturday, March 29, 2008

When is a Black Hole not a Black Hole?

Last year, CERN announced that it had developed a particle splitter which was capable of creating black holes. The announcement stated the black holes were teeny tiny (about the extent of my scientific expression) and disappeared incredibly quickly (quickly being nanoseconds). The ability to study black holes up close was the chance of a lifetime.

However, it's causing quite a stir:

Campaigners in the US are attempting to delay the start-up of the world's most powerful particle smasher with a lawsuit claiming it could spawn dangerous particles or mini black holes that will destroy the entire Earth.

Now let's see what all the hub-bub is about, shall we?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is nearing completion at CERN, the European centre for particle physics near Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists hope it will begin operations in mid-July. (read article from New Scientist). Black holes are kind of dangerous by their very nature, and we know very little about them. A black hole is a region of space where the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing can escape after having fallen past the event horizon. Since it's a gravitational field, it sucks things into it, and even light can not escape (thus the name "black" hole).

We have had particle accelerators before, but CERN plans to build the largest one, called the Large Hadron Collider. You gotta love the creativity of scientists when naming things, don't you? The picture on the right shows colliding gold ions. It's a little spooky how much it looks like the iris of an eye, isn't it?

CERN now plans to have the LHC finished in July and create it's first black hole about two months later. The worry is that we are playing with fire. Notice how black holes are usually identified by the items in space around them looking like a whirlpool. Since, by it's nature, a black hole sucks into it the things that surround it, what's to stop even the smallest black hole from running wild and soon falling out of the control of the scientists at CERN?

CERN, of course, counters by stating that all this creating will take place in a safe, enclosed environment. They know a lot more about science then I do, it's true. CERN has been the forerunner in a lot a ground breaking research and science, but it's also a little creepy.

CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research, whose initials in it's mother tongue of french become CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire). It is the world's largest particle physics laboratory, and it's main purpose is to share scientific information between it's members, which includes over 7,000 scientists and engineers from 80 nationalities, and has 20 member states. It is located between France and Switzerland, in the northwest suburbs of Geneva.

No doubt, it's a wonderful collaborative organization. But here is where it gets a little creepy: As an international facility, the CERN sites are not officially under Swiss or French jurisdiction, and some company vehicles have diplomatic number plates. This includes the organization's fleet of fire trucks.

How the heck did that happen? Basically, CERN is like a country all on its own. It answers only to itself. Now, while I can admire the fact that it's the largest physics test tube on the planet, and shares information with researchers (and has since the 80's) using a complex intranet, this lack of oversight scares me a bit.

Not saying that any of this is happening, but it means that human trials could be committed and no one could stand in the way. There is no accountability but the furthering of science. I am sure that removes some of the hurdles to discovery that the rest of the scientific community must abide by, but should those 20 member nations really give on average $990 million each year with no accountability?

My opinion on the black hole machine CERN intends to finish building is two fold: On one hand, if anyone knows what they are doing, it's half of world's physics community that has worked at CERN on various projects. On the other hand, it makes me a little edgy that they have no legal accountability to anyone for anything.

What do you think?

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