NEWS

  /  

April 8, 2008

Fermilab cited in suit to freeze Swiss accelerator

Switzerland has a long legacy of peaceful neutrality, but two men claim that Swiss scientists are building a device that could destroy the universe.

Walter Wagner, a former radiation safety officer for the Veterans Administration who studied physics at University of California–Berkeley, and Luis Sancho, a self-professed time-theory researcher, have filed suit to halt construction on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) until their safety concerns are satisfied. The U of C’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) is one of the defendants in the lawsuit.

The Geneva-based LHC will become the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator when unveiled this summer under the auspices of the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). The $8-billion endeavor is an international collaborative effort involving scientists from dozens of countries and universities.

The collider will raise protons to energies approaching seven trillion electron volts before slamming them together in an attempt to produce the Higgs boson and other elementary particles that would help move scientists closer to a Grand Unified Theory of physics.

But Wagner and Sancho claim that these experiments will produce dangerous materials as well. One such possibility they suggest is the creation of strangelets, altered subatomic particles that would change the earth into a dense mass of exotic “strange matter.”

They also said that the creation of mini black holes inside the accelerator could grow to consume the earth or even our entire universe.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Hawaii, also charges CERN with failing to file an environmental impact statement as required by the U.S.’s National Environmental Policy Act.

Wagner and Sancho are seeking a restraining order to stop CERN from proceeding with the LHC until new environmental and safety studies can be completed. CERN would have to voluntarily submit to the court’s jurisdiction, but the suit also names Fermilab, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Science Foundation as defendants.

Fermilab and the DOE are building key components for the LHC, so restraining orders against them could slow or halt the project.

CERN physicists said that they have made efforts to ensure the LHC is not dangerous.

“There is nothing new to suggest that the LHC is unsafe,” said James Gillies, CERN’s head of communications, in an interview with The New York Times last week. “Scientifically, we’re not hiding away.”

A 2003 CERN internal review determined that the likelihood of apocalyptic results from the LHC is negligible.

But Wagner remains unconvinced.

“They’ve got a lot of propaganda saying it’s safe, but basically it’s propaganda,” he told the Times. He said that CERN’s safety reviews were “fundamentally flawed” and weren’t conducted by disinterested parties.

Fermilab scientists and spokespeople would not comment on the pending lawsuit, deferring all questions to public affairs at the Department of Justice (DOJ). DOJ staff members, however, have also declined to comment.

But Edward Kolb, chair of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University, who spent a year working at CERN, said the suit is without scientific merit.

“I am much more concerned about Godzilla arising from Lake Michigan and cavorting about in Hyde Park than about collisions at CERN causing the end of the world,” Kolb said in an e-mail interview with the Maroon.

Kolb explained that cosmic rays strike the Earth’s atmosphere thousands of times per day with energies equal to or greater than those that will be produced in the LHC.

“If doomsday from energetic particle collisions was a possibility, it would have happened a long time ago,” he said.

However, the collisions of cosmic rays produce particles that fly away from the earth at near–light speed, while those in the LHC will stick around much longer. Some of these particles might form mini black holes. Physicist Stephen Hawking postulated in 1974 that such mini black holes were harmless and would quickly evaporate, but whether these black holes would be stable enough to consume the earth remains an open question.

Kolb added that if Wagner and Sancho are so worried about CERN, they should consider lobbying Congress to “ban cosmic radiation altogether.”

“Preliminary results point to the cosmic rays originating from gigantic black holes in distant galaxies. If Mr. Wagner’s concerns have any merit, then according to the [Bush] Administration’s policy of preemptive action, those galaxies must be immediately destroyed,” Kolb said.

Wagner unsuccessfully filed a similar lawsuit in 1999 to stop operation of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Since 2000, the RHIC has operated without incident.