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September 13, 2006

The mini-black hole threat

Why physicists keep losing elections:

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!" Congress called for special hearings, and legend has it that one reporter called Brookhaven to ask whether RHIC had already created a black hole that swallowed the plane of John F. Kennedy Jr. as it flew past Long Island. (I would like to think this story is apocryphal, but alas, it probably isn't.)

Most of the RHIC hysteria centered not on mini-black holes, but on strangelets: an object formed should strange quarks stick around long enough after a high-energy collision to combine with up and down quarks. If a resulting strangelet had a negative charge -- an even more unlikely prospect than a strangelet forming in the first place -- it would gobble up all normal matter it encountered, until the entire universe was converted into strangelets. Aiee! Fortunately, the probability of this happening is, at best, on a par with winning the lottery not just once, but more than 10 times in a row. And that's an optimistic estimate. My favorite quote at the time was by MIT physicist Robert Jaffe, who told New York Newsday that, with regard to the formation of strangelets, it was more likely that "a spaceship is going to land in the middle of Texas, and that aliens are going to come out and tell us that the New York Yankees are all aliens."

They just aren't serious about the strangelet threat. Weird matter could eat all the normal God-fearing matter in the universe. Quick, secure the borders!

Via Robin of 3Quarks.


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Most people, I think, would say that if the odds of a given outcome of a given action are that low, then the given outcome has to be pretty catastrophic in order to deter you from performing the given action. But in this case, the outcome is about a catastrophic as it can get! So, I'm not completely convinced that the concern here is unjustified. I mean, how low do the odds of destroying the universe have to be before you decide that concern is warranted? What if the odds were just the same as winning the lottery once? Or winning it twice in a row? I think I recently saw something about a woman who did win the lottery twice in a row...

Also: Winning the lottery 10 times in a row sounds pretty unlikely, but how often does that chance get taken? Does it get taken every time you fire up the machine? If so, how often does the machine get fired up? If they fire it up enough, the odds of eventually destroying the universe might get low enough to justify being worried.

I'm with david on this one … particularly when you weigh in the 'maybe we aren't quite as certain about all of our assumptions and as we sometimes like to pretend' factor.

I've already won the lottery nine times in a row. Can I save the universe by not entering again?

well, i'm actually part of an experiment that works at brookhaven (a lowly graduate student part, but a part nonetheless) and i've read the paper that jaffe and a couple of other people wrote about how rhic was not actually going to destroy the world when it opened (the paper is available here: feel free to read it, it's pretty accessible as these things go). the paper's main argument is that cosmic ray collisions at far higher energy densities than we would be able to achieve at rhic -- by multiple orders of magnitude -- happen at a sufficiently high rate that any of these disaster scenarios would already have happened if it were going to occur. my personal favorite is actually the one that lindsay doesn't mention here, the possibility that the universe will decay to a new, more stable vacuum state, a state that will then spread out at the speed of light and replace our universe with a far more boring one at a lower energy level. however, we've been running for 6 years now without destroying the universe, so i think we're fairly safe. and i believe that the conclusions of the rhic paper are also largely applicable to the lhc, which will achieve high enough energy densities that we can learn new things but still not close to what cosmic ray collisions produce. so we should be safe from destroying the world with a particle collider for another couple decades at least.

The RHIC-won't-kill-us calculation was done by some colleagues of mine. It's a neat calculation, so it's worth reading the paper: There are sort of two facets to it. Based on everything we know about nuclear matter, the probability of world-eating (i.e., negatively-charged) strangelets is zero. There's no known force which would hold such a thing together for more than a few femtoseconds. Supposing that's wrong, and strangelets are somehow stable---does RHIC produce them? Again, not at all, and not in a probabalistic way. A strangelet is a sort of the nuclear equivalent of an ice cube; it's got a particular set of constituents, and they stick together if you can put them all together below the freezing point. RHIC collisions are the hottest environments ever created by humans; making a strangelet out of a RHIC fireball is like having a snowflake spontanously arise in an oxyaceylene flame.

What Jaffe et. al. did was to say, "Supposing that we knew *nothing whatsoever* about nuclear physics, but were generically worried that high-energy collisions could cause destructive chain reactions. What do we know experimentally about such probabilities?" What we know, as it turns out, that RHIC's event rate is child's play compared with the ongoing experiment occurring on the Moon. On the surface of the Moon, all of the heavy, energetic lead and gold nuclei in high-energy cosmic rays are hitting all of the trace lead and gold nuclei on the lunar surface. They've been doing this 24 hours a day for four billion years. Despite this bombardment, the moon has not been eaten by a rogue particle. Therefore, you can compute an upper limit to the probability for a single RHIC-like gold-gold collision to destroy the Moon. Multiply that by the total number of collisions within RHIC, and you've got the strict upper limit to the probability that RHIC will destroy the Earth. No guesswork, nuclear models, or theory required. You don't even have to specify what sort of danger-particle you're afraid of:: black holes? Strangelets? Atom-eating femto-robots? All ruled out, statistically speaking. Anything that can happen in RHIC, has already happened a gazillion times on the Moon.

It's sort of like asking, "What is the danger that home run balls by the Washington Nationals will break windows at the White House?" On one hand you can look at the physics of pitchers, balls, and bats and say that the risk is theoretically zero. On the other hand, you can just look at the lengths of all recorded home-runs; you'd show that zero of the 20,000 homers of the past century went past 1000 feet, that the Nationals could be expected to hit 110 HR per year; if the Nationals behavior is similar to past behavior, then the statistical risk of a >1000-foot HR is no greater than 110/20000, and therefore that the window-breaking risk is no greater than 110/20000. That's the sort of limit Jaffe et. al. computed.

Apologies for the physics geekery. You may now return to your regularly-scheduled humanities, politics, and policy geekery.

Geneticly modified food, Mad cow, bird flu, mega-tsunami, super volcanos, anthrax, nuclear disaster, global warming, meteor stike, American fascism and Eternal war. I'm sick of this shit.

Please power up your experiment to full throttle and get it the hell over with.

I'll be on beach awaiting sweet oblivion and finally some peace.

Ben M's comment pretty much satisfies me! I am no longer terrified.

Atom-eating femto-robots?

Well, deliberately constructed atom-eating femto-robots could destroy the planet, no question.

Since I'm lazy, could one of the current nuclear physicists in residence clarify something? Strangelets are not just "an object formed should strange quarks stick around long enough after a high-energy collision to combine with up and down quarks," are they? 'Cause that just sounds like lambda and sigma baryons.

The Large Hadron Collider [LHC] at CERN might create numerous different particles that heretofore have only been theorized. Numerous peer-reviewed science articles have been published on each of these, and if you google on the term "LHC" and then the particular particle, you will find hundreds of such articles, including:

1) Higgs boson

2) Magnetic Monopole

3) Strangelet

4) Miniature Black Hole [aka nano black hole]

In 1987 I first theorized that colliders might create miniature black holes, and expressed those concerns to a few individuals. However, Hawking's formula showed that such a miniature black hole, with a mass of under 10,000,000 a.m.u., would "evaporate" in about 1 E-23 seconds, and thus would not move from its point of creation to the walls of the vacuum chamber [taking about 1 E-11 seconds travelling at 0.9999c] in time to cannibalize matter and grow larger.

In 1999, I was uncertain whether Hawking radiation would work as he proposed. If not, and if a mini black hole were created, it could potentially be disastrous. I wrote a Letter to the Editor to Scientific American [July, 1999] about that issue, and they had Frank Wilczek, who later received a Nobel Prize for his work on quarks, write a response. In the response, Frank wrote that it was not a credible scenario to believe that minature black holes could be created.

Well, since then, numerous theorists have asserted to the contrary. Google on "LHC Black Hole" for a plethora of articles on how the LHC might create miniature black holes, which those theorists believe will be harmless because of their faith in Hawking's theory of evaporation via quantum tunneling.

The idea that rare ultra-high-energy cosmic rays striking the moon [or other astronomical body] create natural miniature black holes -- and therefore it is safe to do so in the laboratory -- ignores one very fundamental difference.

In nature, if they are created, they are travelling at about 0.9999c relative to the planet that was struck, and would for example zip through the moon in about 0.1 seconds, very neutrino-like because of their ultra-tiny Schwartzschild radius, and high speed. They would likely not interact at all, or if they did, glom on to perhaps a quark or two, barely decreasing their transit momentum.

At the LHC, however, any such novel particle created would be relatively 'at rest', and be captured by Earth's gravitational field, and would repeatedly orbit through Earth, if stable and not prone to decay. If such miniature black holes don't rapidly evaporate and are produced in copious abundance [1/second by some theories], there is a much greater probability that they will interact and grow larger, compared to what occurs in nature.

There are a host of other problems with the "cosmic ray argument" posited by those who believe it is safe to create miniature black holes. This continuous oversight of obvious flaws in reasoning certaily should give one pause to consider what other oversights might be present in the theories they seek to test.

I am not without some experience in science.

In 1975 I discovered the tracks of a novel particle on a balloon-borne cosmic ray detector. "Evidence for Detection of a Moving Magnetic Monopole", Price et al., Physical Review Letters, August 25, 1975, Volume 35, Number 8. A magnetic monopole was first theorized in 1931 by Paul A.M. Dirac, Proceedings of the Royal Society (London), Series A 133, 60 (1931), and again in Physics Review 74, 817 (1948). While some pundits claimed that the tracks represented a doubly-fragmenting normal nucleus, the data was so far removed from that possibility that it would have been only a one-in-one-billion chance, compared to a novel particle of unknown type. The data fit perfectly with a Dirac monopole.

While I would very much love to see whether we can create a magnetic monopole in a collider, ethically I cannot currently support such because of the risks involved.

For more information, go to:


Walter L. Wagner (Dr.)

CERNs web site states that we have not been destroyed by effects of cosmic rays and micro black holes will evaporate.

However, cosmic rays travel too fast to be captured by Earths gravity, and Hawking Radiation is disputed and contradicts Einsteins highly successful relativity theory. Collider particles smash head on like a car collision and can be captured by Earths gravity, and relativity predicts micro black holes will not decay (Hawking called Einstein doubly wrong, yet it is Einstein who is repeatedly found to have been correct in his theories). There is currently no reasonable proof of LHC safety, LSAG (LHC Safety Assessment Group) has been trying for months to prove safety without success. I hold the minority opinion that it may not be possible because it may in fact not be safe.

Cosmic Rays from the legal complaint.

any such novel particle created in nature by cosmic ray impacts would be left with a velocity at nearly the speed of light, relative to earth. At such speeds, . . . , is believed by most theorists to simply pass harmlessly through our planet with nary an impact, safely exiting on the other side. . . . Conversely, any such novel particle that might be created at the LHC would be at slow speed relative to earth, a goodly percentage would then be captured by earths gravity, and could possibly grow larger [accrete matter] with disastrous consequences of the earth turning into a large black hole.

Professor Dr. Otto E. Roessler estimates 50 months Earth accretion time from a single micro black hole captured by Earth's gravity (, translation at

If this thing is so safe, why arent CERN scientists allowed to express any personal fears they might have about this Collider?

Alleged in the legal action: Chief Scientific Officer, Mr. Engelen passed an internal memorandum to workers at CERN, asking them, regardless of personal opinion, to affirm in all interviews that there were no risks involved in the experiments, changing the previous assertion of minimal risk.

(Statisticians generally consider minimal risk as 1-10%).


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