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Deus Ex Machina

September 15, 2009
by Pat Joseph
photograph of Walter Wagner

Walter Wagner says the Large Hadron Collider could destroy the world. Physicists say fat chance. But is even that a chance we want to take?

The switch was officially thrown on September 10. Had everything gone as planned, proton beams would right now be traveling at nearly the speed of light around a 17-mile-long looped tunnel buried a few hundred feet beneath the Franco-Swiss border. With the machine up and running at full power, the beams—one running clockwise, the other counterclockwise—would intersect at various points inside the subterranean racetrack, whereupon a tiny fraction of the protons would crash into each other at energies unprecedented in the laboratory. As it happens, operation has been suspended until next spring, due to a helium leak in the tunnel, thought to have been caused by a faulty electrical connection.

Welcome to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the state of the art in atom smashing. A project of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, the LHC attempts to, in a sense, re-create creation by simulating conditions a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, when the entire universe, implausible though it may seem, was being unpacked from one infinitely dense speck—a macrocosmic rabbit pulled out of a microcosmic hat.

Physicists at the LHC hope to glimpse things they have thus far only imagined, such as the so-called supersymmetric particles, which are expected to decay in ways that could shed light on the nature of dark matter—a sizable chunk of the universe and a complete mystery to science. Then there’s the long-postulated Higgs boson, a.k.a. the God particle, the existence of which could explain why particles have mass, when theoretically, they should not. Discoveries like these, and others that can’t be anticipated, may ultimately lead to a reconciliation of quantum mechanics with Einstein’s general theory of relativity—a holy union that physicists wistfully refer to as the Grand Unifying Theory, or the Theory of Everything.

Even before the powering up of the collider made international headlines (and even if you have no interest whatsoever in cosmology or particle physics or science of any stripe), you may have heard about the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC has received considerable media attention thanks to a Berkeley alumnus by the name of Walter Wagner ’72, who sued to stop the LHC on the grounds that the experiment could go awry, spawning killer strangelets (about which more later) or creating black holes which could suck the Earth into the cosmic abyss. As stated in the court affidavit filed by Wagner, “this would be quite deadly to everyone.” Indeed.

Most physicists are quick to dismiss Wagner’s concerns as highly implausible, if not flat-out impossible. CERN and the U.S. Department of Energy, co-defendants in the suit, have issued statements and reports aimed at allaying fears. Journalists, meanwhile, can’t leave the story alone. No surprise there. For connoisseurs of irony, Wagner’s end-time scenario is too good to resist. Think about it: For all the hand-wringing over supposed existential threats like climate change, drug-resistant viruses, and Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, everything (every last thing!) could be rubbed out in an instant thanks to a bunch of geniuses who were trying to unscrew the inscrutable.

CERN may be home to the highest-energy particle accelerator on Earth, but the age of “big-machine physics” begins in Berkeley. It was here, in 1929, that Ernest O. Lawrence, then a newly hired professor, invented the cyclotron, a spiral particle collider that managed, through repeated electromagnetic nudges, to produce high-energy particles without the need for correspondingly high voltage. Granted, the original cyclotron wasn’t very big: It fit in Lawrence’s hand. But, as greater and greater energies were required to further parse the atomic nucleus, accelerators grew larger and larger, expanding to fill whole buildings and eventually sprawling across the countryside (see “From particles to dust“). Fermilab’s Tevatron, for example, has a footprint of 4 miles’ circumference, puny compared to the Superconducting Super Collider, which was once slated to span 25 square miles of Texas real estate—that is, until Congress balked at the price tag and pulled funding. Funding may yet define the practical limits of high-energy physics, but for now the direction of the discipline is clear: Bigger and bigger machines aimed at finding the smallest components of the universe.

There was a time when humanity seemed content to divide the material world into four basic elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. That was the extent of it until some clever Greek pointed out that these things were not, in fact, elemental. And so, before long, we arrived at the notion of “atoms,” which were posited to be the unseen but fundamental building blocks of all matter.

The word atom means uncuttable, but alas, science created a misnomer. As we now know, atoms have a nucleus orbited by a cloud of electrons. Inside the nucleus are protons and neutrons, the “hadrons” after which the LHC is named. By smashing together atomic nuclei, we have managed to drill down deeper still, getting inside the protons and neutrons to reveal quantum-level particles, such as quarks and gluons and neutrinos, that scientists believe are in fact fundamental, structureless, and dare we say it, uncuttable.

The problem is that when all these dots we know about are connected, we still don’t get a satisfactory picture of the universe. Some basic forces—gravity, for example—don’t quite fit. To learn more about all this, I visited theoretical physicist Michael Barnett. Among his many roles, Barnett serves as coordinator of education and outreach for the ATLAS experiment, an international effort that revolves around the cryogenically cooled, seven-story-tall, 49-yard-long ATLAS detector—one of the main particle detectors at the LHC.

The main trouble with gravity, Barnett explained to me in his office at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is that it’s so confoundingly feeble. “You would normally think of gravity as a fairly strong force. It’s pulling pretty strongly on you right now. But if you imagine me putting a paperclip down here and getting a weak little refrigerator magnet and having a contest between this little dinky refrigerator magnet and the entire body of Earth, the magnet wins. And the reason is because gravity is…many orders of magnitude weaker than other forces [electromagnetism and the strong and the weak interactions]. We would like to know why that is. One thought that came up a few years ago was that there may be extra dimensions of space.” According to the theory, Barnett explained while tugging at his graying beard, “gravity may be spreading out all over the place,” radiating gravitons (gravity particles) into the other dimensions we aren’t aware of. “And then you get to the other consequence [of extra dimensions] which is…we might be able to produce these microscopic black holes, which leave very nice signatures in our detector, which would make them very clear to us and would be a major discovery.”

A fantastic discovery, I echoed while trying and failing to imagine gravity slipping through the sieve of space-time. Or whatever.

“And it leads to certain people having misunderstandings about what that means.”

I was still having trouble with gravity. Why, I asked, couldn’t gravity simply be what it appears to be—that is, an anomalously weak force bound by the same dimensions we experience?

“Physicists like life to be simple,” Barnett answered—paradoxically, I thought, since nearly everything he said seemed to complicate matters. “The question is, why would you have three forces that are relatively similar to each other in magnitude and then one that’s just completely different? That doesn’t—we don’t like that idea.” As for microscopic black holes, Barnett confessed, “probably the most reasonable person won’t believe that they exist, because there’s a whole set of assumptions you have to accept to get to that point. So, most likely, they don’t exist, and if they do, they’re just exciting for us to study and will tell us that there are extra dimensions. When I said there were extra dimensions, by the way, it doesn’t mean there are black holes, but if we see black holes, then boy! there are extra dimensions! That’s a truly revolutionary idea. That would be great for us to see. But it’s a long shot.”

In July 1999, Scientific American published a letter to the editor in which it was suggested that a “mini black hole” could form in the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) then being powered up at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. If this mini black hole remained stable, the correspondent ventured, it could conceivably grow until it was big enough to “devour the entire planet within minutes.” The letter ended, “My calculations indicate that the Brookhaven collider does not obtain sufficient energies to produce a mini black hole; however, my calculations might be wrong. Is the Brookhaven collider for certain below the threshold?” It was signed Walter L. Wagner.

For a response, the magazine turned to then-Princeton physicist Frank Wilczek, who went on to win a Nobel for his work on something called quantum chromodynamics. Wilczek dismissed the black hole scenario as “incredible,” arguing that energies in the RHIC were “nowhere near large enough” to warrant concern. On the other hand, Wilczek continued, “a speculative but quite respectable possibility” existed that a “new, stable form of matter called strangelets might be produced” and that “one might be concerned about an ‘Ice-9’-type transition.” Kurt Vonnegut fans may remember Ice-9 from the novel Cat’s Cradle, in which a seed crystal of synthetic ice, engineered to have a very high melting point, freezes all water on the planet via chain reaction. Similarly, a strangelet might convert the Earth into a hyperdense ball of strange matter through a process of contagion. In the end, however, Wilczek declared his own proffered doomsday scenario to be “implausible.”

No matter, the mere suggestion was enough to cause a sensation. Soon after the magazine hit newsstands, the Sunday Times (of London) ran a headline declaring, “Big Bang machine could destroy Earth.” Just 24 hours after that, the Brookhaven lab issued a statement declaring the risk to be essentially nonexistent. It then commissioned a formal safety review. The resulting study focused primarily on the threat of strangelets but also addressed gravitational singularities like black holes as well as a third eventuality, that particle-collider experiments could unwittingly trigger a phase transition. “A transition of this kind,” the authors wrote, “would propagate outward from its source throughout the universe at the speed of light.” In his book Our Final Hour, Sir Martin Rees, the U.K. Astronomer Royal, offered a more pointed description: “The boundary of the new-style vacuum would spread like an expanding bubble. In that bubble atoms could not exist: it would be curtains for us, for Earth, and indeed for the wider cosmos; eventually, the entire galaxy, and beyond, would be engulfed. And we would never see the disaster coming.” The idea is outlandish to the point of risibility—something straight out of a Douglas Adams novel—and yet Rees insists physicists regularly discuss such scenarios “with a straight face.”

In the end, the physicists who conducted the RHIC safety review delivered a straight-faced verdict: A cosmic phase change is impossible. Citing earlier work by Rees and the Dutch-born physicist Piet Hut, the authors turned to nature to buttress the conclusion. They noted that naturally occurring cosmic rays, which are far more energetic than anything created in particle accelerators, “have been colliding throughout the history of the universe, and if such a transition were possible it would have been triggered long ago.” Cosmic rays likewise dispel the possibility of killer strangelets. As proof, they point to the Moon. Heavy atoms on the lunar landscape have been bombarded by cosmic rays since the Moon was born, and behold: It still exists.

Rees, however, isn’t entirely satisfied by the arguments. While it’s true that “collisions with the same energy certainly occur in the cosmos,” he writes, they occur “under conditions that differ in relevant respects from those of the planned terrestrial experiments; these differences could alter the likelihood of a runaway process.” “The best theoretical guesses are reassuring,” Rees wrote in Our Final Hour. But they are just that: theoretical guesses.

Reached on the phone from his home on the Big Island, Walter Wagner is in the middle of reviewing an Amicus brief filed in the U.S. District Court of Hawaii by three physicists, including Nobel laureates Sheldon Glashow and Frank Wilczek—the man who answered his long-ago letter to Scientific American. Far from being intimidated by the newly received document, Wagner sounds energized. “It was not written by them, of course. It was written by their attorneys. Poorly written….It’s got all these factual inaccuracies,” he crows. “They refer to it as a linear collider. It’s not a linear collider. It’s a cyclotronic collider. And they make a lot of other mistakes…. It says, ‘The LHC does not accelerate nuclei but only accelerates and causes the collision of elementary particles, protons and anti-protons.’ Well, the LHC isn’t going to collide protons and anti-protons. It’s protons and protons! Fermilab does protons and anti-protons! And [the lawyer] doesn’t make this up. This is what he was told by these guys, and they got it wrong!… And then, their argument is—Let me read to you what it says. ‘The strangelet disaster scenario described would only be credible if strangelets exist (which is conceivable) and if they form reasonably stable lumps (which is unlikely) and if they are negatively charged (unlikely given the current very strongly favors positive charges) and if tiny strangelets can be created.’ Well, so that’s exactly what we’re saying…. It’s possible!”

Wagner has a law degree from what is now the University of Northern California in Sacramento, and by dint of his J.D., he sometimes refers to himself as “Dr. Wagner.” His first love, however, was science. Before going to law school, he got his bachelor’s degree in biology from Berkeley, then did a stint as a technician in the Space Sciences Lab. It was during that time, while serving as a “scanner” in a balloon-borne cosmic-ray experiment, that he spotted an unusual particle track that was later determined to be a “magnetic monopole”—a subatomic particle whose existence had only been theorized. The news was reported in Time magazine, but after reevaluating the data, physicist Buford Price, the lead researcher on the experiment, retracted the finding in a long paper published in the Physical Review. Wagner, meanwhile, stands by the initial interpretation and continues to take credit for the discovery on his website.

His career since then has been a mixed bag. After law school, he served for a time as a radiation safety officer at the V.A. Hospital in San Francisco and later taught science classes in California and Hawaii. At various times he has taken on the role of public safety crusader, highlighting such unlikely hazards as the existence, in homes and schools (including Berkeley) of ceramic tiles painted in radioactive glaze. More recently, he has found himself on the wrong side of the law. He is currently under indictment for theft in the first degree involving a Big Island tourist attraction he founded called World Botanical Gardens. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in jail.

Given the sketchy resume, I ask Wagner whether he honestly considers himself to be a nuclear physicist. “Sure. I do nuclear physics every day. I talk about nuclear physics. People ask, ‘Well, what is a nuclear physicist?’ Well, somebody who understands how a nucleus works and talks about it and works with it. I’ve got a Geiger counter here right in front of me. Now, you tell me if you understand this nuclear physics. Here’s my Geiger counter.” A slight crackling sound suddenly comes across the phone receiver. “That’s the natural background. It’s kind of low here. And now….” The crackling quickens and climbs in pitch. “There it is. That was uranium. Same stuff inside of our nuclear reactors and bombs and what Iran is trying to enrich…. Exact same stuff. So yeah, I work with that stuff. But mostly what I do now is talking and writing about it. I’m not actually in the laboratory doing experiments.” For the record, Wagner insists he doesn’t want physics to grind to a halt. “I think that what we have now is a situation where we need to use the LHC to drive other research work that can establish the LHC’s safety…. So, I look at it as an opportunity.” As an example, Wagner points to detectors in space that might be able to disprove the existence of strangelets or prove the existence of something called Hawking radiation, which he says would eliminate concerns about Earth-gobbling black holes.

Before ending our conversation, I asked Wagner if he had any parting thoughts. He said, “I recognize we’re in the minority, and journalists often like to give more ink to the majority. But that isn’t necessarily equal representation of the facts. And let me close, I guess, by saying nature doesn’t care who’s the majority. Nature’s gonna do what nature’s gonna do.”

When I spoke with Michael Barnett about the various worst-case scenarios that had been suggested for the LHC—mini stable black holes, killer strangelets, a cosmic phase shift that evaporates time and space—he was unequivocal in his insistence that the risk posed by the collider is nil. When I gently protested that I had seen other physicists quoted as saying the risk was infinitesimal, but still greater than zero, he stopped me short.

“OK…this is something in the nature of scientists. There is a possibility that all the air in this room will be moved to that half and there will be none here, and you and I will be dead. It’s never going to happen, but there is a possibility…. The problem is, the public can’t see the difference. If you say there’s a very small chance of something, they’re thinking 1 percent, because they can’t think of anything smaller. There’s 99 percent and there’s 1 percent. That’s it. And in reality, well…I don’t think that way, first of all. I don’t think there’s a small chance that all the air in the room is going to go to that side and we’re going to die. There’s never been a room in the history of mankind where that’s happened. So, the chance is zero, actually. But if you want to talk about it from a scientist’s point of view, they can make up some stupid number which has no meaning.”

I mentioned a theoretical physicist at Harvard named Nima Arkani-Hamed, who told a New York Times reporter that, by the very nature of quantum mechanics, almost anything was possible. There is a miniscule probability, Arkani-Hamed told the Times reporter, that the Large Hadron Collider “might make dragons that might eat us up.”

Barnett grinned through his beard, but he didn’t laugh. “Yeah. People say that. It would be better if they didn’t.”

In the Summer of 1942, the best scientific minds in the world descended upon the Berkeley campus and regularly convened on the fourth floor of LeConte Hall for secret meetings to discuss the potential of building an atomic bomb. It was during one of these rarefied confabs that Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb and the model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, broached the worrisome idea that an atomic explosion might release enough energy to fuse the nuclei of nitrogen and hydrogen and turn the entire planet into a giant fireball. Another theoretician, Hans Bethe, scoffed at the notion but set about doing the calculations nonetheless. He found fault with some of Teller’s assumptions and ultimately determined that the explosion would lose energy too quickly to touch off any such chain reaction. According to an official history written after Hiroshima, “The impossibility of igniting the atmosphere was thus assured by science and common sense.”

Perhaps. But three years later, at the Trinity test—the first atomic explosion—there remained enough uncertainty about the bomb that the senior scientists of the Manhattan Project could only guess at their gadget’s explosive power. In the lead-up to the test, they placed bets on the bomb’s yield, as expressed in terms of TNT. Oppenheimer bet it wouldn’t work at all. Teller put his money on 45 kilotons.

Meanwhile, Enrico Fermi, one of the brightest stars in the group, was offering a different sort of wager, taking bets on whether the bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would spell the end of the whole world or just New Mexico. The military leadership didn’t appreciate the gallows humor, but as author Richard Rhodes observed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, “a new force was about to be loosed on the world; no one could be absolutely certain—Fermi’s point—of the outcome of its debut.” As it happened, the blast equaled 18.6 kilotons of TNT. New Mexico was spared.

It’s difficult to know what lesson to derive from Fermi’s wager. Is the story a vindication of science or an illustration of Man’s penchant for pushing his luck? Either interpretation could lend itself to thoughtful argument—a debate in which no easy victor emerges. Those who would strictly adhere to the cautionary principle (do nothing until safety is assured) would have to defend what, for all its apparent sensibleness, sounds like a recipe for paralysis. And those who would defend unbridled scientific endeavor would have to justify their zeal with tangible, far-reaching benefits, or else submit to the blind logic of technological inevitability (if we can do a thing, we will). As for knowledge being its own justification, that’s all fine and good until the price we pay for that knowledge is the risk—however small—of outright extinction.

In Our Final Hour, Sir Martin Rees confesses that he and other physicists find the prospects of catastrophe “exceedingly unlikely” but adds that questions concerning the safety of high-energy physics “raise in extreme form the issue of who should decide, and how, whether to proceed with experiments that have a genuine scientific purpose…but that pose a very tiny risk of an utterly calamitous outcome.” The question applies to other potentially hazardous scientific frontiers as well—genetic engineering and nanotechnology, for example—and considering the staggering pace at which these frontiers are advancing, it’s an issue that demands greater, and prompt, attention.

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