[percy-l] Walker Percy quoted in today's NY Times: Gauging a Collider’s Odds of Creating a Black Hole

Jim Forest jhforest at gmail.com
Tue Apr 15 13:29:17 EDT 2008

New York Times / www.nytimes.com / April 15, 2008


*Gauging a Collider's Odds of Creating a Black Hole*

By Dennis Overbye

In Walker Percy's "Love in the Ruins," the protagonist, a doctor and an
inventor, recites what he calls the scientist's prayer. It goes like this:

*"Lord, grant that my work increase knowledge and help other men.

"Failing that, Lord, grant that it will not lead to man's destruction.

"Failing that, Lord, grant that my article in Brain be published before
the destruction takes place."*

Today we require more than prayers that a scientific experiment will
not lead to the end of the world. We demand hard-headed calculations.
But whom can we trust to do them?

That question has been raised by the impending startup of the Large
Hadron Collider. It starts smashing protons together this summer at the
European Center for Nuclear Research, or Cern, outside Geneva, in
hopes of grabbing a piece of the primordial fire, forces and particles
that may have existed a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

Critics have contended that the machine could produce a black hole
that could eat the Earth or something equally catastrophic.

To most physicists, this fear is more science fiction than science fact.
At a recent open house weekend, 73,000 visitors, without pitchforks or
torches, toured the collider without incident.

Nevertheless, some experts say too much hype and not enough candor
on the part of scientists about the promises and perils of what they do
could boomerang into a public relations disaster for science, opening
the door for charlatans and demagogues.

In a paper published in 2000 with the title "Might a Laboratory
Experiment Destroy Planet Earth?" Francesco Calogero, a nuclear
physicist at the University of Rome and co-winner of the 1995 Nobel
Peace Prize for his work with the Pugwash conferences on arms
control, deplored a tendency among his colleagues to promulgate a
"leave it to the experts" attitude.

"Many, indeed most, of them," he wrote, "seem to me to be more
concerned with the public relations impact of what they, or others, say
and write, than in making sure that the facts are presented with
complete scientific objectivity."

One problem is that society has never agreed on a standard of what is
safe in these surreal realms when the odds of disaster might be tiny but
the stakes are cosmically high. In such situations, probability estimates
are often no more than "informed betting odds," said Martin Rees, a
Cambridge University cosmologist, the astronomer royal and the
author of "Our Final Hour." Adrian Kent, also of Cambridge, said in a
paper in 2003 reviewing scientists' failure to calculate adequately and
characterize accurately risks to the public, that even the most basic
question, " 'How improbable does a catastrophe have to be to justify
proceeding with an experiment?' seems never to have been seriously

Dr. Calogero commented, as did Dr. Kent, in 2000 after a very public
battle on the safety of another accelerator, the Relativistic Heavy Ion
Collider, or Rhic, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long
Island. Dr. Calogero said he hoped to apply a gentle pressure on Cern
to treat these issues with seriousness. "A crusade against it is a
danger," he said of the new collider. "It would not be based on rational

Fears about the Brookhaven collider first centered on black holes but
soon shifted to the danger posed by weird hypothetical particles,
strangelets, that critics said could transform the Earth almost instantly
into a dead, dense lump. Ultimately, independent studies by two groups
of physicists calculated that the chances of this catastrophe were
negligible, based on astronomical evidence and assumptions about the
physics of the strangelets. One report put the odds of a strangelet
disaster at less than one in 50 million, less than a chance of winning
some lottery jackpots. Dr. Kent, in a 2003 paper, used the standard
insurance company method to calculate expected losses to explore how
stringent this bound on danger was. He multiplied the disaster
probability times the cost, in this case the loss of the global population,
six billion. A result was that, in actuarial terms, the Rhic collider could
kill up to 120 people in a decade of operation.

"Put this way, the bound seems far from adequately reassuring," Dr.
Kent wrote.

Alvaro de Rujula of Cern, who was involved in writing a safety report,
said extending the insurance formula that way violated common sense.
"Applied to all imaginable catastrophes, it would result in World
Paralysis," he wrote.

Besides, the random nature of quantum physics means that there is
always a minuscule, but nonzero, chance of anything occurring,
including that the new collider could spit out man-eating dragons.

Doomsday from particle physics is part of the culture.

Next year will see the release of the film version of "Angels and
Demons," the prequel to Dan Brown's "DaVinci Code," in which the
bad guys use a Cern accelerator to gather antimatter for a bomb to blow
up the Vatican, and it includes scenes at Cern.

In Douglas Preston's "Blasphemy," a best seller last winter, the
operators of a giant particle collider in New Mexico find themselves
talking to an entity that sounds like God before religious fanatics
descend on the lab and destroy it.

Some physicists, who have been waiting 14 years for the new collider,
have proclaimed in papers and press releases increasingly ambitious
and unlikely hopes, including proving a long-shot version of string
theory by producing microscopic black holes.

Inevitably, these black holes have taken center stage in the latest round
of doomsday alarms. Most theorists will say the version of their theory
that predicts black holes is extremely unlikely — though not
impossible. But the chance that such a black hole would not instantly
evaporate according to a theory famously propounded by Stephen
Hawking in 1974 is even more weirdly unlikely, the theorists say.

Cern's most recent safety report, in 2003, focused mostly on refuting
the strangelet threat in the hadron collider and devoted just three pages
to black holes, saying they "do not present a conceivable risk." It gave
no odds. An anonymous Cern committee is working on a final, more
comprehensive report.

Neither Dr. Calogero nor Dr. Rees say they are losing sleep over the
collider. Some risk is acceptable, even inevitable, in the pursuit of
knowledge, they say, and they trust the physicists who have built it.

But it would be more reassuring in the long run, as Dr. Kent noted, if
everybody agreed beforehand how much risk is acceptable, before
spending billions of dollars and major political capital.

One popular option to determine acceptable risk is to demand that the
chance of a man-made disaster be kept below the chance of a natural
disaster like being obliterated by an asteroid. Astronomers estimate that
chance as one in 50 million in any given year.

Of course, thanks to those pesky quantum laws, disaster could come
anytime. Or not. It could happen that the scientist's prayer will be
answered and your discovery will indeed lead to knowledge, human
happiness and a new killer ap for iPhones.

"As in all explorations of uncharted domains, there may be a risk," Dr.
Rees wrote, "but there is a hidden cost of saying no."

* * *

Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

Forest-Flier web site: www.incommunion.org/forest-flier/
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: www.incommunion.org
photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/
*recently published: "Silent as a Stone," a children's book about a
community of rescuers in Nazi-occupied Paris:*
*another new book: "The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life":*
* * *
Nancy and I have been keeping a journal that follows our recent kidney
transplant. A blog has
been set up for this purpose -- A Tale of Two Kidneys. See:
* * **
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