Big Bangs and Black Holes in Your Back Yard, Again

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, Jennifer’s alter-ego Jean-Luc Piquant discusses paranoia over high energy physics experiments.

Be afraid! Be very afraid! Those evil particle physicists are at it again with their massive high-energy colliders, and if they’re not closely monitored, their high-falutin’ “experiments” might put an end to the universe as we know it. This could be doomsday, people, the ultimate Apocalypse! At least that’s what an average citizen might think if they happened to stumble on this little item on Slashdot, which Jen-Luc Piquant found courtesy of the mystery blogger behind Angry Physics. It resurrects the rumor of universe-destroying mini-black holes that could be created once CERN’s Large Hadron Collider goes online in — is it 2008? I haven’t been keeping up with the official start date.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the item appeared on the five-year anniversary of those infamous terrorist attacks on NYC and DC. Nonetheless, the smell of fear — or at least of fear-mongering — was still lingering in the air as various members of the Bush administration capped off a pre-election week of stumping across the nation, telling us why we should still be absolutely terrified of innocent-seeming items like bottled water and shampoo, which MIGHT EXPLODE ANY MINUTE. However, in fairness to the White House, concerns over continuing terrorist threats are much, much more valid than the worry that the LHC will end Life As We Know It On Earth — almost infinitely so. Terrorist attacks have actually happened, and our country is still a major target of extremist groups, so a certain degree of caution should appropriately be exercised. (I still say the whole liquids and gels ban on flights is ludicrous, however.)

Even in physics, one shouldn’t dismiss a potential risk outright, particularly since the LHC will achieve unprecedented energies that will hopefully lead to exciting new physics. “New physics” implies that scientists could find something surprising, or revolutionary, which could in turn be potentially dangerous. After all, Wilhelm Roentgen never dreamed in 1898 that his newly discovered x-rays could be fatal in large doses — the proverbial double-edged sword. But in case people have forgotten, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about mini-black holes being produced in colliders. Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) generated all kinds of world-ending rumors when it fired up in 1999, prompting the Sunday Times of London to print an hysterical article with the headline, “Big Bang Machine Could Destroy Earth!”