Planet Survival, Pro and Con

Will the earth be obliterated by Labor Day? What the Times didn’t tell you.

The New York Times keeps reporting that there may be an itty-bitty chance that when the Large Hadron Collider at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), located just outside Geneva, Switzerland, gets switched on late in August, the world will come to an end. But probably there is no such chance, even an itty-bitty one.

A story like this poses difficult questions about news placement.

If there’s even a microscopic chance that human agency will destroy the planet—the CERN accelerator is the world’s largest—then surely this news belongs on Page One. That’s how the Times played it on March 29 with Dennis Overbye’s story, “Asking A Judge To Save the World, and Maybe A Whole Lot More.”

On the other hand, news stories announcing even a microscopic chance that human agency will destroy the planet risk creating worldwide panic. After all, as my friend Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in a fine cover piece in the June Atlantic (“The Sky Is Falling“), it’s much likelier that humankind will be wiped out by an asteroid. In the piece, Easterbrook reported that an asteroid specialist for the Air Force put the likelihood of a “dangerous space-object” collision in any given century at one in 10. (Caveat: Not all such collision scenarios, which include comets and meteors in addition to asteroids, posit the destruction of all human life on the planet.)

The Times has kept follow-ups to the end-of-the-world story off Page One. Overbye published an explanatory essay in the paper’s science section on April 15, and on June 21 he published deep inside the Times A section a news story bearing the whimsical headline, “Earth Will Survive After All, Physicists Say.” On June 27, Overbye reported, again inside the Times A section, that the United States was seeking to dismiss a lawsuit by two worried citizens aimed at preventing anyone from throwing the big switch at the Large Hadron Collider. The government’s principal response, I’m sorry to report, wasn’t that there’s no chance that switching on the Large Hadron Collider will bring about the end of the world, but rather that a six-year statute of limitations has already passed.

I can well understand why the Times doesn’t want to give sustained big play to the possibility that the world will end on or around Labor Day. In addition to the civic-minded concern that this might create worldwide panic, there are practical matters of self-interest. If the possibility weren’t realized, as most scientists seem to expect, then the Times would look foolish. If the possibility were realized, it would have no opportunity to collect a Pulitzer, because the Times, the Pulitzer board, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which gives out the award, and every last Times reader would all be obliterated, along with the rest of the planet.

On the other hand, when readers are invited to ponder the possibility, or lack thereof, that the Large Hadron Collider will obliterate their planet—even when that invitation is extended in an edgy Timesian spirit of good fun—they deserve a decent summary of the arguments pro and con. Overbye has done a very poor job in this regard. I don’t know one-tenth about this subject as Overbye, but since he let you down, your faithful Chatterbox is duty bound to step into the breach. (A previous Slate “Explainer” column on this topic focused, like the feds, on legal issues at the expense of scientific ones.)

To keep things simple, I will limit discussion to the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider will swallow up the planet in a black hole. This is the most-discussed doomsday scenario. (I should note in passing, however, the existence also of scenarios involving “strangelets,” a hypothetical category of matter that might set off an uncontrollable fusion chain reaction that would transform the planet into what the BBC calls a “hot, dead lump”; “magnetic monopoles,” a hypothetical thingamabob that might conceivably destroy protons, hence atoms, hence matter, hence Planet Earth; and vacuum bubbles, which might alter the entire universe in some way that would render humankind extinct.)

Both sides in the black-hole version of the doomsday argument recognize that the Large Hadron Collider may create black holes. These would be little (“microscopic”) black holes. The majority view, as articulated by CERN scientists, is that microscopic black holes are harmless, that cosmic rays create them all the time, and that they traverse our planet at very near the speed of light on a regular basis without causing so much as a nosebleed. The minority view, as articulated in an affidavit filed in federal court by Walter L. Wagner, a retired federal nuclear safety officer, might be summarized by quoting Bruce Springsteen: “From small things, mama/ Big things one day come.” According to this view, CERN-created microscopic black holes would be different because they would travel more slowly, increasing the possibility that they would be captured by the earth’s gravity, enabling them to gobble up matter and grow bigger, like the monster plant Audrey II (“Feed me”) in Little Shop of Horrors, until eventually they gobbled up Planet Earth itself.

Brian Cox, a University of Manchester physicist who works on the Large Hadron Collider, responded to the doomsday argument in an interview posted June 26 by O’Reilly Media. I will give him the last word:

You read on the web, well, what happens if these black holes fly straight through the planet before they have a chance to eat it? Whereas the one that the LHC could [create would] just sit there and perhaps sink to the center of the earth? It turns out that when you do the calculation the black holes are so small that even if they didn’t decay and they just sat there they wouldn’t come close enough to any matter—because matter is basically empty space—to dissolve and to [inaudible] the matter and to grow so they wouldn’t do any damage. Okay; why don’t you ignore that? Well the final piece of wonderful evidence which confines these idiots to the bin is that you look up into the sky and you see white walls—some neutron stars—very, very dense stars. Cosmic rays are hitting those with energy greater than those seen at the LHC so if you can make black holes, black holes will be created on that surface. It turns out that they’re nuclear dense, these stars, so the black holes are not going to fly through there; they’re going to sit there and they’re going to eat away and they’re going to eat away much quicker than they could eat away the earth because the matter is much denser. So people have calculated how many neutron stars or white walls you would see in the sky if this were happening. If they were getting eaten by little mini-black holes and it turns out that there’d be very few indeed—in fact probably pretty much none, and you can do the calculation. So there’s a whole layer [laughs] that—I don’t need to reassure you anymore, I’m sure, but there are layer after layer after layer of—of tests and some of them are observational and some of them are theoretical and it turns out that it’s utter nonsense.

I won’t pretend to understand very much of this. But it does seem reassuring.