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CERN has revealed plans for a gigantic successor of the giant atom smasher LHC, the biggest machine ever built. Particle physicists will never stop to ask for ever larger big bang machines. But where are the limits for the ordinary society concerning costs and existential risks?

CERN boffins are already conducting a mega experiment at the LHC, a 27km circular particle collider, at the cost of several billion Euros to study conditions of matter as it existed fractions of a second after the big bang and to find the smallest particle possible – but the question is how could they ever know? Now, they pretend to be a little bit upset because they could not find any particles beyond the standard model, which means something they would not expect. To achieve that, particle physicists would like to build an even larger “Future Circular Collider” (FCC) near Geneva, where CERN enjoys extraterritorial status, with a ring of 100km – for about 24 billion Euros.

Experts point out that this research could be as limitless as the universe itself. The UK’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, Prof Sir David King told BBC: “We have to draw a line somewhere otherwise we end up with a collider that is so large that it goes around the equator. And if it doesn’t end there perhaps there will be a request for one that goes to the Moon and back.”

“There is always going to be more deep physics to be conducted with larger and larger colliders. My question is to what extent will the knowledge that we already have be extended to benefit humanity?”

There have been broad discussions about whether high energy nuclear experiments could pose an existential risk sooner or later, for example by producing micro black holes (mBH) or strange matter (strangelets) that could convert ordinary matter into strange matter and that eventually could start an infinite chain reaction from the moment it was stable – theoretically at a mass of around 1000 protons.

CERN has argued that micro black holes eventually could be produced, but they would not be stable and evaporate immediately due to „Hawking radiation“, a theoretical process that has never been observed.

Furthermore, CERN argues that similar high energy particle collisions occur naturally in the universe and in the Earth’s atmosphere, so they could not be dangerous. However, such natural high energy collisions are seldom and they have only been measured rather indirectly. Basically, nature does not set up LHC experiments: For example, the density of such artificial particle collisions never occurs in Earth’s atmosphere. Even if the cosmic ray argument was legitimate: CERN produces as many high energy collisions in an artificial narrow space as occur naturally in more than hundred thousand years in the atmosphere. Physicists look quite puzzled when they recalculate it.

Others argue that a particle collider ring would have to be bigger than the Earth to be dangerous.

A study on “Methodological Challenges for Risks with Low Probabilities and High Stakes” was provided by Lifeboat member Prof Raffaela Hillerbrand et al. Prof Eric Johnson submitted a paper discussing juridical difficulties (lawsuits were not successful or were not accepted respectively) but also the problem of groupthink within scientific communities. More of important contributions to the existential risk debate came from risk assessment experts Wolfgang Kromp and Mark Leggett, from R. Plaga, Eric Penrose, Walter Wagner, Otto Roessler, James Blodgett, Tom Kerwick and many more.

Since these discussions can become very sophisticated, there is also a more general approach (see video): According to present research, there are around 10 billion Earth-like planets alone in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Intelligent life might send radio waves, because they are extremely long lasting, though we have not received any (“Fermi paradox”). Theory postulates that there could be a ”great filter“, something that wipes out intelligent civilizations at a rather early state of their technical development. Let that sink in.

All technical civilizations would start to build particle smashers to find out how the universe works, to get as close as possible to the big bang and to hunt for the smallest particle at bigger and bigger machines. But maybe there is a very unexpected effect lurking at a certain threshold that nobody would ever think of and that theory does not provide. Indeed, this could be a logical candidate for the “great filter”, an explanation for the Fermi paradox. If it was, a disastrous big bang machine eventually is not that big at all. Because if civilizations were to construct a collider of epic dimensions, a lack of resources would have stopped them in most cases.

Finally, the CERN member states will have to decide on the budget and the future course.

The political question behind is: How far are the ordinary citizens paying for that willing to go?

LHC-Critique / LHC-Kritik

Network to discuss the risks at experimental subnuclear particle accelerators


Particle collider safety newsgroup at Facebook:

It’s the centennial year of the Titanic disaster, and that tragedy remains a touchstone.

The lifeboat angle is obvious. So is the ice hazard: then it was icebergs, now it’s comets.

But 100 years of expanding awareness has revealed the other threats we’re now aware of. We have to think about asteroids, nano- and genotech accidents, ill-considered high-energy experiments, economic and social collapse into oligarchy and debt peonage, and all the many others.

What a great subject for a Movie Night! Here are some great old movies about lifeboats and their discontents.

Lifeboat Triple Feature:

They’re full of situations about existential risks, risk assessment, prudential behavior, and getting along in lifeboats if we absolutely have to. The lesson is: make sure there are enough lifeboats and make darn sure you never need to use them.

Anyway, I finally got my review of the show done, and I hope it’s enjoyable and maybe teachable. I’d welcome additional movie candidates.

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Party LIke It’s 1912… by Clark Matthews is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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RMS <em>Titanic</em> Sails
What’s to worry? RMS Titanic departs Southampton.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster in 1912. What better time to think about lifeboats?

One way to start a discussion is with some vintage entertainment. On the centenary weekend of the wreck of the mega-liner, our local movie palace near the Hudson River waterfront ran a triple bill of classic films about maritime disasters: A Night to Remember, Lifeboat, and The Poseidon Adventure. Each one highlights an aspect of the lifeboat problem. They’re useful analogies for thinking about the existential risks of booking a passage on spaceship Earth.

Can’t happen…

A Night to Remember frames the basic social priorities: Should we have lifeboats and who are they for? Just anybody?? When William McQuitty produced his famous 1958 docudrama of the Titanic’s last hours, the answers were blindingly obvious – of course we need lifeboats! They’re for everyone and there should be enough! Where is that moral certainty these days? And whatever happened to the universal technological optimism of 1912? For example, certain Seasteaders guarantee your rights – and presumably a lifeboat seat – only as long as your dues are paid. Libertarians privatize public goods, run them into the ground, squeeze out every dime, move the money offshore, and then dictate budget priorities in their own interest. Malthusians handle the menu planning. And the ship’s captain just might be the neo-feudal Prince Philip, plotting our course back to his Deep Green Eleventh Century.

Tallulah Bankhead in <em>Lifeboat</em>
Think Mink and Don’t Sink: Talulah Bankhead in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat deals with the problems of being in one. For a very long time – unlike the lucky stiffs on the Titanic, who were picked up in 2 hours. Specifically, it’s about a motley group of passengers thrown together in an open boat with short provisions, no compass, and no certain course. And, oh yes, the skipper is their mortal enemy: The lifeboat is helmed by the U-boat commander who torpedoed their ship. He overawes them with seafaring expertise and boundless energy (thanks to the speed pills in his secret stash) and then lulls them by singing sentimental German lieder. At night, the captain solves his problems of supply and authority by culling the injured passengers while everyone’s asleep. He tells the survivors they’re going to Bermuda. They’re actually headed for a rendezvous with his supply ship – and from there the slow boat to Buchenwald. The point of Lifeboat is simple: What can you do in your life and environment so you never, ever end up in one?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Risk avoidance is the moral of The Poseidon Adventure. A glorious old ocean liner, the Poseidon, is acquired by new owners who plan to scrap it. But these clever operators maximize shareholder value by billing the ship’s final voyage as a New Year’s cruise to Greece. They take on every paying passenger they can find, barter with a band to get free entertainment, and drive the underloaded ship hard and fast into the stormy winter Mediterranean over the protests of the captain and seasick travelers. At this point an undersea earthquake triggers a 90-foot tsunami, and despite ample warnings this monster wave broadsides the top-heavy liner at midnight, during the New Year’s party. First the ball drops. Then the other shoe drops. The result is the ultimate “Bottoms Up!”

And the takeaway of The Poseidon Adventure applies to all of the films and to life in general, not to mention the next few generations on the planet. As David McCollough’s famously concluded in The Johnstown Flood, it can be a fatal assumption ‘that the people who were responsible for your safety will act responsibly.’

You can have a ripping good time watching these old movies. And as futurists, sociologists, planners, catastrophists, humanists or transhumanists, you can conjure with them, too. Icebergs and U-boats have ceased to menace – of cruise ships, I say nothing.

But the same principles of egalitarianism, legitimacy, non-beligerence and prudential planning apply to Earth-crossing asteroids, CERN’s operations and program, Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno manipulations, monetary policy and international finance, and NATO deployments present and future.

Or do they? And if they do, who says so?

Ship beautiful — the Aquitania on her way.

CC BY-NC-ND Clark Matthews and The Lifeboat Foundation

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Earth’s Titanic Challenges by Clark Matthews is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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High energy experiments like the LHC at the nuclear research centre CERN are extreme energy consumers (needing the power of a nuclear plant). Their construction is extremely costly (presently 7 Billion Euros) and practical benefits are not in sight. The experiments eventually pose existential risks and these risks have not been properly investigated.

It is not the first time that CERN announces record energies and news around April 1 – apparently hoping that some critique and concerns about the risks could be misinterpreted as an April joke. Additionally CERN regularly starts up the LHC at Easter celebrations and just before week ends, when news offices are empty and people prefer to have peaceful days with their friends and families.

CERN has just announced new records in collision energies at the LHC. And instead of conducting a neutral risk assessment, the nuclear research centre plans costly upgrades of its Big Bang machine. Facing an LHC upgrade in 2013 for up to CHF 1 Billion and the perspective of a Mega-LHC in 2022: How long will it take until risk researchers are finally integrated in a neutral safety assessment?

There are countless evidences for the necessity of an external and multidisciplinary safety assessment of the LHC. According to a pre-study in risk research, CERN fits less than a fifth of the criteria for a modern risk assessment (see the press release below). It is not acceptable that the clueless member states point at the operator CERN itself, while this regards its self-set security measures as sufficient, in spite of critique from risk researchers, continuous debates and the publication of further papers pointing at concrete dangers and even existential risks (black holes, strangelets) eventually arising from the experiments sooner or later. Presently science has to admit that the risk is disputed and basically unknown.

It will not be possible to keep up this ostrich policy much longer. Especially facing the planned upgrades of the LHC, CERN will be confronted with increasing critique from scientific and civil side that the most powerful particle collider has yet not been challenged in a neutral and multidisciplinary safety assessment. CERN has yet not answered to pragmatic proposals for such a process that also should constructively involve critics and CERN. Also further legal steps from different sides are possible.

The member states that are financing the CERN budget, the UN or private funds are addressed to provide resources to finally initiate a neutral and multidisciplinary risk assessment.

German version of this article published in Oekonews:

Related LHC-Critique press release and open letter to CERN:

Typical physicist’s April joke on stable black holes at the LHC (April 1 2012, German):

Latest publications of studies demonstrating risks arising from the LHC experiment:

Prof Otto E. Rössler:

Thomas Kerwick B.Tech. M.Eng. Ph.D.:

Brief summary of the basic problem by LHC-Kritik (still valid since Sep. 2008):

Detailed summary of the scientific LHC risk discussion by LHC-Kritik and ConCERNed International:

We wish you happy Easter and hope for your support of our pragmatic proposals to urgently increase safety in these new fields of nuclear physics.

LHC Critique / LHC Kritik — Network for Safety at nuclear and sub-nuclear high energy Experiments.

[email protected]

Tel.: +43 650 629 627 5

New Facebook group:

Experts regard safety report on Big Bang Machine as insufficient and one-dimensional

International critics of the high energy experiments planned to start soon at the particle accelerator LHC at CERN in Geneva have submitted a request to the Ministers of Science of the CERN member states and to the delegates to the CERN Council, the supreme controlling body of CERN.

The paper states that several risk scenarios (that have to be described as global or existential risks) cannot currently be excluded. Under present conditions, the critics have to speak out against an operation of the LHC.

The submission includes assessments from expertises in the fields markedly missing from the physicist-only LSAG safety report — those of risk assessment, law, ethics and statistics. Further weight is added because these experts are all university-level experts – from Griffith University, the University of North Dakota and Oxford University respectively. In particular, it is criticised that CERN’s official safety report lacks independence – all its authors have a prior interest in the LHC running and that the report uses physicist-only authors, when modern risk-assessment guidelines recommend risk experts and ethicists as well.

As a precondition of safety, the request calls for a neutral and multi-disciplinary risk assessment and additional astrophysical experiments – Earth based and in the atmosphere – for a better empirical verification of the alleged comparability of particle collisions under the extreme artificial conditions of the LHC experiment and relatively rare natural high energy particle collisions: “Far from copying nature, the LHC focuses on rare and extreme events in a physical set up which has never occurred before in the history of the planet. Nature does not set up LHC experiments.”

Even under greatly improved circumstances concerning safety as proposed above, big jumps in energy increase, as presently planned by a factor of three compared to present records, without carefully analyzing previous results before each increase of energy, should principally be avoided.

The concise “Request to CERN Council and Member States on LHC Risks” (Pdf with hyperlinks to the described studies) by several critical groups, supported by well known critics of the planned experiments:

The answer received by now does not consider these arguments and studies but only repeats again that from the side of the operators everything appears sufficient, agreed by a Nobel Price winner in physics. LHC restart and record collisions by factor 3 are presently scheduled for March 30, 2010.

Official detailed and well understandable paper and communication with many scientific sources by ‘ConCERNed International’ and ‘LHC Kritik’:

More info: