Legal bid to stop CERN atom smasher from ‘destroying the world’
by Richard Gray, Science Correspondent
September 5, 2008
The world’s biggest and most expensive scientific experiment has been hit by a last minute legal challenge, amid claims that the research could bring about the end of the world.
Critics of the Large Hadron Collider – a £4.4 billion machine due to be switched on in ten days time – have lodged a lawsuit at the European Court for Human Rights against the 20 countries, including the UK, that fund the project.
The device is designed to replicate conditions that existed just a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, and its creators hope it will unlock the secrets of how the universe began.
However, opponents fear the machine, which will smash pieces of atoms together at high speed and generate temperatures of more than a trillion degrees centigrade, may create a mini-black hole that could tear the earth apart.
Scientists involved in the project have dismissed the fears as “absurd” and insist that extensive safety assessments on the 17 mile long particle accelerator have demonstrated that it is safe.
The legal battle comes as the European Nuclear Research Centre (CERN), in Geneva, prepares to send the first beam of particles around the machine at the official switch on, on September 10, although it will be several weeks before the first particles are collided together.
Opponents of the project had hoped to obtain an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights that would block the collider from being turned on at all, but the court rejected the application on Friday morning. However, the court will rule on allegations that the experiment violates the right to life under the European Convention of Human Rights.
Professor Otto Rà¶ssler, a German chemist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen who is one of the most vocal opponents of the LHC and was one of the scientists who submitted the complaint to the court, said: “CERN itself has admitted that mini black holes could be created when the particles collide, but they don’t consider this a risk.
“My own calculations have shown that it is quite plausible that these little black holes survive and will grow exponentially and eat the planet from the inside. I have been calling for CERN to hold a safety conference to prove my conclusions wrong but they have not been willing.
“We submitted this application to the European Court of Human Rights as we do not believe the scientists at CERN are taking all the precautions they should be in order to protect human life.”
Professor Rà¶ssler claims that, in the worst case scenario, the earth could be sucked inside out within four years of a mini black hole forming.
The case he and his colleagues have put before the European Court of Human Rights argues that the Large Hadron Collider violates the right to life and right to private family life under the European Convention of Human Rights
It sets out a series of arguments that suggest the collider could produce mini black holes that would permanently come into existence and grow uncontrollably.
But a safety report published earlier this year by experts at CERN and reviewed by a group of external scientists gave the Large Hadron Collider the all clear. It concluded that there was little theoretical chance of the collider producing mini black holes that would be capable of posing a danger to the earth.
It stated that nature routinely produces higher energy collisions on the earth than will be possible in the collider, when cosmic rays hit the planet
But the CERN facility is already facing a second lawsuit filed by environmentalists in Hawaii who are seeking a court order that would force the US government to intervene and delay the start up of the collider. That case is due to be heard on Tuesday.
Large particle colliders have been used by scientists to smash atoms and pieces of atoms together for more than thirty years without causing any noticeable harm to the planet.
This latest machine, however, has attracted such attention because it is the largest and most powerful ever constructed. Built 300ft beneath the French Swiss border, it will fire atomic particles around its 17 mile circumference, 11,245 times every second before smashing them headlong into each other.
The result will, for a split second, replicate the conditions that existed in the moments immediately after the birth of the universe, known as the Big Bang. In a space a billion times smaller than a speck of dust, the collisions will create temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the centre of the sun.
Among the debris thrown off by these collisions, scientists hope they will find the elusive Higgs-Boson, which is thought to be responsible for giving every other particle its mass, or weight.
But scientists admit it could be years before they start producing any meaningful results due to the challenges involved in detecting such tiny and fleeting particles.
James Gillies, spokesman for CERN, insisted that despite the huge amounts of energy the Large Hadron Collider will produce, it posed no risk to the safety of the planet.
He said: “The case before the European Court of Human Rights contains the same arguments that we have seen before and we have answered these in extensive safety reports.
The Large Hadron Collider will not be producing anything that does not already happen routinely in nature due to cosmic rays. If they were dangerous we would know about it already.
“We are now concentrating on firing the first beams around the collider and then on fine tuning it until we can get collisions, when the science will start.”
A spokesman for the European Court of Human Rights confirmed the lawsuit had been lodged and the petition to obtain an emergency injunction against CERN was rejected. She said: “There will therefore be no bar to CERN carrying out these experiments but the applicants can continue with this case here at the ECHR.”