Sunday, September 7, 2008

End of the world?

I received the following very nicely worded email today, which I am posting along with my response:

Dear Prof. Mukhi,

I am Sribharath Kainkaryam, an undergraduate student studying Geophysics. I am a keen follower of your blog and your work for non-physicists in general.

I have a few doubts which I kindly ask you to clarify in the form of a post on your blog. I hope it is not too much to ask for!

On reading this article, I am more and more intrigued. Is there any basis for these critics to allege that the world is coming to an "end"? Could you please clarify it either by mail/blog post or send a link to an expository article that you might have authored.

Thank you.




Dear Sribharath,

Thanks for your mail. It's nice that you have sought information - I wish others, specially journalists, would do the same!

The Large Hadron Collider is a machine that will send protons whirling round and round in its tunnel and accelerate them until they have enormous kinetic energy, amounting to 5 Tera Electron-volts or TeV (later to be upgraded to 7 TeV). There will be two beams, one circulating clockwise and the other anti-clockwise, each with this energy. They will normally not meet each other, but will instead accelerate separately. Whenever an experiment is to be performed the accelerated beams will be diverted slightly into each others' path and made to collide.

The result of the collisions between these small particles, is a bunch of other particles which will spray out from the collision and pass through detectors. By recording what goes through the detectors, and using sophisticated computers, scientists will determine what particles were produced and at what energies and angles. From this it is in principle possible to reconstruct the laws that apply to fundamental particle interactions. This is the goal of LHC.

LHC is not the first particle accelerator, nor are the laws for fundamental particle interactions unknown to us. Indeed, most of what will be produced by colliding protons is perfectly well known. Moreover, hadron colliders have been around for a long time, the first one (ISR) was built at CERN in 1971 and operated for fourteen years. So the only new thing is the energy that the present collider will reach. Even that is not such a major step, for the last hadron collider (the Tevatron, operational at Fermilab in the US since 1992) reached nearly 1 TeV per beam. In short, what is going to happen at LHC is a logical continuation of experiments that have been going on for decades. The real excitement in science is that we believe new particles, never seen in an experiment before, could be produced. We hoped that about Tevatron too, and it produced a notable one (the "top" quark) but not many others that we were hoping to see.

The claim that LHC poses a risk to the world is not based on the "normal" new particles that scientists hope to see (Higgs, superparticles...) but on something a little different. In the last decade, theorists have proposed an apparently outlandish scenario in which the energy scale required for gravitational effects to be relevant is lower than previously thought and may be accessed at LHC (so far gravitational effects have been totally irrelevant for particle physics). In this scenario there is the possibility that small black holes may be produced. If that happens, there should still be nothing to worry about, for such black holes would decay and that would be that.

The problem is if they fail to decay. In that case, they could "accrete" matter and, without further analysis, there is the risk that this process will pose a threat to the earth. In a detailed scientific analysis (a 96-page paper available here) two excellent physicists, Giddings and Mangano, have analysed this possibility. Their conclusions are that (i) the possibility that such black holes are stable and neutral is extremely unlikely according to known results in physics (besides the low likelihood of their existing at this energy scale in the first place), (ii) assuming all the standard analyses are wrong for some reason and that stable, neutral TeV-scale black holes can exist, such black holes would already have been produced in cosmic rays. This would produce effects which are in contradiction with known observations in astrophysics. Their conclusion is that if such black holes did have any visible effect on the earth, the time scale for this to happen would be longer than the sun's lifetime which is about 5 billion years.

I know both scientists who authored this study personally and find their result quite convincing. Whatever counter-arguments have been made (mostly by non-scientists or unqualified scientists) do not seem to be convincing. In any case it is not I, but the responsible experimenters at CERN, who need to be convinced that it is safe, and they are clearly convinced of that.

By the way, I know it's not much of a consolation, but even the predicted "end of the world" is not really scheduled for September 10. All that will happen on that day is that a single proton beam will circulate in LHC in one direction. The first collisions are scheduled for late October as far as I know. This is a minor point, but please notice how blissfully the Times of India is unaware of even this basic fact!!


James Jr said...

Dear Prof. Mukhi,

Your analysis is reasonable except that you appear to be unaware of the quality of the opposition rebuttals and the credibility of the opposition.

The safety opposition alleges CERN is not being fully open and honest about the facts, about the certainty of safety or the credibility of the scientists who calculate a reasonable probability of catastrophic danger.

The safety arguments are based on disputed physics. Hawking Radiation has been refuted by multiple papers that conclude micro black holes will be stable if created.

A Brief History of LHC safety issues follows:

In 2004 CERN announced the possibility that micro black holes might be created by the Large Hadron Collider possibly at a rate of one per second but believed they would evaporate.[2]

Several physicists wrote papers concluding that black holes do not radiate.[1][3][10]

In 2007, former cosmic ray researcher and Nuclear Safety Officer Walter L. Wagner discovered flaws with CERN's safety arguments. He believes that the Large Hadron Collider might create dangerous particles including strangelets possibly with Earth destroying potential, he filed a US Federal law suit to require proof of safety after CERN failed to deliver a promised safety report.[5]

In response, CERN scientists created a safety report in 2008 that argues no real chance of danger. [6]

After review, German Astrophysicist (Physics PHD) Dr. Rainer Plaga argues that CERN's new report does not prove safety. Dr. Plaga proposes that CERN follow additional safety procedures to help reduce the danger, including proceeding slowly. [7]

On August 14th, CERN's Dr. Jonathan Ellis stated that there is no real danger and they will not proceed slowly, collisions will begin in a few weeks. [8] (Collisions are probably not possible that soon, CERN does not tend to meet their own time schedules).

Another German scientist famous for contributions to Chaos theory, founder of Endophysics and visiting professor of physics Dr. Otto E. Rössler theorizes that if micro black holes are created in the Large Hadron Collider, they could grow large enough to destroy Earth in decades or centuries.[9]

Dr. Rössler requests that an emergency safety conference be held before collisions begin.[11]

On August 26, 2008, suit was filed against CERN in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg alleging the Large Hadron Collider poses grave safety risks.[12]

[1] Do black holes radiate?. Dr. Adam Helfer (2003)

[2] The case for mini black holes, CERN Courier (2004)

[3], On the existence of black hole evaporationyet again, Prof. VA Belinski (2006)

[4] What the Experts Say (2008)

[5] US Federal Lawsuit Filings - Walter L. Wagner (2008)

[6] The safety of the LHC, Web Site - CERN (2008)

[7] On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders - Rainer Plaga Rebuttal (2008)

[8] CERN?s Dr. Ellis tells only half of the story - (2008)

[9] Abraham-Solution to Schwarzschild Metric Implies That CERN Miniblack Holes Pose a Planetary Risk, Prof. Dr. Otto Rossler (2008)

[10] A Rational and Moral and Spiritual Dilemma - Otto E. Rössler Safety Counter Arguments (2008)

[11] Safety of the Large Hadron Collider (2008)

[12] European Legal Action (2008)

[13] Scientific Peer Review to Inform Regulatory Decision Making: A European Perspective (2006)

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear James Jr,

Credibility of the opposition is precisely what is lacking, in my opinion.

If we are to debate further, it would be nice to know who you are - clicking on your name produced "Blogger: Profile not available".

JTankers said...

I entered profile information but it does not appear to be accessible from my prior post. (Available at

I recommend the article: CERN’s Dr. Ellis tells only half of the story at:

It links to a video where CERN's Dr. Ellis minimizes the safety opposition while posting a slide that argues "time reversal" is a reason we should find Hawking Radiation and their other safety arguments plausible.

Outlandish really. CERN did not do their safety homework until pressured to do so, and then they did not complete the job in a manor reasonable based on the potential risk and the credibility of the opposition arguments.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear James Jr Tankersley,

Thank you for identifying yourself.

I went through much of the literature you have mentioned as well as your own profile, and am standing by my opinion that the "opposition" to the CERN and Giddings-Mangano point of view on LHC safety is sadly lacking in quality and credibility.

In particular you compare LHC with the space shuttle Challenger disaster (on the website, which is really you, though you pretend it is an independent supporter of your claims). This is so nonsensical that one concludes you really know much less - even about the difference between science and engineering - than the bare minimum expected.

JTankers said...

Sir I do not misrepresent myself in any way and I am offended that you imply the same.

You have made the assumption that CERN is open and honest and the opposition is not credible.

Unfortunately you are wrong on both accounts.

Thank you for your research, I encourage you to keep learning, you may be surprised at what you learn.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear James Jr. Tankersley,

Please don't be offended. Let's discuss science instead. I have gone through Roessler's papers as well as some other papers commenting on them, notably one by Nicolai and Giulini available here.

Roessler claims that black holes should have a re-scaled metric in which the horizon is at infinite distance. This is the basis of his assertion that they do not Hawking radiate.

One consequence of this re-interpretation is that the speed of light becomes constant in all frames, even in general relativity. Could you please tell me (directly, from your own knowledge of physics):

(i) whether this agrees with experimental observations? For example, is it consistent with the basic experiment that established general relativity - the precession of the perihelion of Mercury?

(ii) whether Nicolai-Giulini's observations about the internal inconsistency of Roessler's idea are correct or not?

Sunil Mukhi

JTankers said...

Hello Prof. Mukhi,

Thank you are taking the time and energy to study Dr. Rossler's work which I am not qualified to defend.

I will forward this to Dr. Rössler and request that he address your questions.

You may also find interesting Dr. Rössler's recent interview and comments with science journalist Alan Gillis

and Dr. Rossler's blog:

(I also find it interesting that CERN has not properly addressed senior Physics PHD Dr. Rainer Plaga's paper refuting safety, very different theoretically from Dr. Rossler's, ignores Dr. Plaga's risk mitigation proposals and attacks the eminent and award winning Dr. Rossler personally [I am currently reading Dr. Rossler's book Endophysics]. I find the response from CERN arrogant and disturbing.)

Mind Without Fear said...

what makes for scientific prediction ( as well as the important distinction of relevant vs irrelevant ) is by and large not understood in the press. Moreover, the press also has a greater commercial interest in generating sensational news items rather than science education of the readers. I would be pleasantly surprised if science reporting in the press gets any better.

It is interesting to read the other comments and rediscover the difficulty of convincing members of flat earth society that the earth topologically at least is more like an orange rather than a table!

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear James Jr Tankersley,

I did not ask you to forward my questions to Roessler but to answer them yourself. It is you, as an advocate of the LHC doomsday scenario, maintainer of, and poster of comments on my blog, to whom I was addressing myself.

It's at least honest of you to admit to me that you don't know basic physics. You should admit that on your website, so others will know what kind of ignoramus you are.

Unfortunately your comment about Rainer Plaga's paper shows that your ignorance goes beyond physics. The paper contains an error of a factor of 10 to the power 23. This has been explained in a recent short paper by Giddings and Mangano which you don't seem to even know about. Once you've brushed up on your basic physics, you can try reading it here.

In conclusion, let me quote you to yourself: "I encourage you to keep learning, you may be surprised at what you learn.". In your case "start learning" would be more appropriate.

JTankers said...

With all due respect Professor Mukhi, you are a bully.

However, Dr. Rossler did respond.

Dr. Rossler writes:

First sentence (starting with "Roessler.."): yes. If "re-scaling" means "unchanged if re-interpreted."

Second sentence ("One consequence..."): Yes. Only that transverse directions look compressed when seen from above (anisotropic projection).

Third sentence ("(i)"): The new description agrees with all known experimental observations. Reason: the Schwarzschild metric is unchanged.

Actually, the full version (of which I only used the radial part) of my new "gothic-R coordinate" has since been written down for the first time by a highly competent young blogger (in an 8-page paper on the Internet - his pseudonym is "ICH"). Prof. Giulini's publicly expressed fear ("claim") that this were not the case was thereby disproved in effect. This fact does, of course, not come unexpected since nothing has been changed in the first place.

Fourth senetnce ("(ii)"): The quoted "observations" are only assertions. What element of truth they might still harbor as such is, unfortunately, impossible to fnind out since their authors refuse to talk to me. None of my three theorems has ever been falsified to the bes6t of my knowledge. I would love to learn otherwise, because I could then stop asking to be falsified before the experiment takes off. The LHC experiment is much too important to be protected by lies I feel.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear Mr Tankersley,

With equal respect, you are a fraud. You have endorsed Roessler's work (on my blog and on your webpage) but are, by your own admission, incompetent even to discuss a simple thing like the Schwarzschild metric. If you had any honesty you would withdraw your own endorsements of Roessler and your criticisms of CERN, because you simply don't know enough physics to make the judgements you have made.

Whether any other critic of LHC has the required physics competence is a distinct matter, and one that - given your own lack of competence - need not concern you.

JTankers said...

Good day Mr. Mukhi

Abhilash said...

Prof. Mukhi: I am glad (relieved actually) to see the post. The kind of irrational comments one hears in the media and the reaction one sees is disturbing. It would be nice if you could write this up as an article in the Times of India/HT (if they have some sense left, they'd publish it).

Also, the conversation above brings to light some more general issues: It seems that the public perception of science is (often) governed by people who are not well-trained in the subject. Such people can pass off by giving wrong and misguided comments on scientific issues just because they know how to use some jargon. A common man (who'd be awed if you included the term "black hole" in a conversation) easily falls prey to such talk. And the end result is a sense of misgiving against genuine researchers. I guess if more genuine researchers would participate proactively to give a accurate account of the science they do, the situation could be remedied.

Abhilash Mishra.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear Abhilash,

Thanks for your comment. Actually the print media in India (specifically Times and HT) have been relatively restrained, I feel. They obviously had to put up at least one article on this stuff because it's a global fad. But after that, at least in India the fad seems to be getting sustainance mainly from TV channels (which I don't watch, but friends tell me this). To be fair even to them, this evening I believe one network got some TIFR scientists who work on the CMS detector at LHC to talk about it.

The issue more generally seems to be a bit of a David-vs-Goliath feeling in the public's mind. Scientists are seen to be so remote, and their knowledge so inaccessible, that anything which suggests huge bungling and ignorance on their part comes as a welcome relief.

One can (and I do) proactively try to deliver accounts of science in simple language - I wrote eight articles, including one on the LHC, in Times of India last year. But all that ends up being a drop in the ocean.

Iain said...

Dear Prof. Mukhi,

Thank you for taking the time to write exchanges with James Jr, who also started posting stuff on my humble blog, where I had only posted a link to a humorous "LHC Rap" that appeared on YouTube, and made a witty comment about "doom merchants" thinking the end of the world was nigh.

Virtually no-one reads my blog apart from people who know me, but within an hour of my post, James Jr had put a whole lot of propaganda as a comment with a link to the site, not mentioning that he was the owner of the site initially.

I did attempt to read the Giddings and Mangano paper, and while the conclusions seemed pretty convincing, I would have to admit that I'm not well qualified to assess the details of the maths, having only done undergraduate Physics, graduating in 1980, and then moving into statistical modelling.

Tankersley claimed to have read that paper and the rebuttals & I didn't really want to get too involved as I knew my physics wasn't up to it. It was therefore good to read your opinions on all this.

The distressing aspect of all this is the upset and anxiety among the non-scientific public that all this nonsense has caused. My children were worried about the world coming to an end, and I believe, from a Reuters' report that it has already claimed a life, when a 16 year old girl in Bhopal was so disturbed by the reports covered in lurid detail by the TV, that she took her own life.

I realise of course that this tragedy is pretty much the media's reports, but I think such things should be on the conscience of those tiny minority who wish to make this a "cause", especially, as you have demonstrated, people who aren't able to do the physics.