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.
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
What would you have done to stop catastrophic events if you knew in advance what you know now.
We have the moral obligation to take action in every way we can.
The future is in our hands. The stakes are the highest they have ever been. The Large Hadron Collider developed by the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) is a dangerous instrument. The start-up April 5 has initiated a more reckless use of LHC’s capabilities.
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.
Famous Chilean philosopher Humberto Maturana describes “certainty” in science as subjective emotional opinion and astonishes the physicists’ prominence. French astronomer and “Leonardo” publisher Roger Malina hopes that the LHC safety issue would be discussed in a broader social context and not only in the closer scientific framework of CERN.
The latest renowned “Ars Electronica Festival” in Linz (Austria) was dedicated in part to an uncritical worship of the gigantic particle accelerator LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at the European Nuclear Research Center CERN located at the Franco-Swiss border. CERN in turn promoted an art prize with the idea to “cooperate closely” with the arts. This time the objections were of a philosophical nature – and they had what it takes.
In a thought provoking presentation Maturana addressed the limits of our knowledge and the intersubjective foundations of what we call “objective” and “reality.” His talk was spiked with excellent remarks and witty asides that contributed much to the accessibility of these fundamental philosophical problems: “Be realistic, be objective!” Maturana pointed out, simply means that we want others to adopt our point of view. The great constructivist and founder of the concept of autopoiesis clearly distinguished his approach from a solipsistic position.
Given Ars Electronica’s spotlight on CERN and its experimental sub-nuclear research reactor, Maturana’s explanations were especially important, which to the assembled CERN celebrities may have come in a mixture of an unpleasant surprise and a lack of relation to them.
During the question-and-answer period, Markus Goritschnig asked Maturana whether it wasn’t problematic that CERN is basically controlling itself and discarding a number of existential risks discussed related to the LHC — including hypothetical but mathematically demonstrable risks also raised — and later downplayed — by physicists like Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek, and whether he thought it necessary to integrate in the LHC safety assessment process other sciences aside from physics such as risk search. In response Maturana replied (in the video from about 1:17): “We human beings can always reflect on what we are doing and choose. And choose to do it or not to do it. And so the question is, how are we scientists reflecting upon what we do? Are we taking seriously our responsibility of what we do? […] We are always in the danger of thinking that, ‘Oh, I have the truth’, I mean — in a culture of truth, in a culture of certainty — because truth and certainty are not as we think — I mean certainty is an emotion. ‘I am certain that something is the case’ means: ‘I do not know’. […] We cannot pretend to impose anything on others; we have to create domains of interrogativity.”
Disregarding these reflections, Sergio Bertolucci (CERN) found the peer review system among the physicists’ community a sufficient scholarly control. He refuted all the disputed risks with the “cosmic ray argument,” arguing that much more energetic collisions are naturally taking place in the atmosphere without any adverse effect. This safety argument by CERN on the LHC, however, can also be criticized under different perspectives, for example: Very high energetic collisions could be measured only indirectly — and the collision frequency under the unprecedented artificial and extreme conditions at the LHC is of astronomical magnitudes higher than in the Earth’s atmosphere and anywhere else in the nearer cosmos.
The second presentation of the “Origin” Symposium III was held by Roger Malina, an astrophysicist and the editor of “Leonardo” (MIT Press), a leading academic journal for the arts, sciences and technology.
Malina opened with a disturbing fact: “95% of the universe is of an unknown nature, dark matter and dark energy. We sort of know how it behaves. But we don’t have a clue of what it is. It does not emit light, it does not reflect light. As an astronomer this is a little bit humbling. We have been looking at the sky for millions of years trying to explain what is going on. And after all of that and all those instruments, we understand only 3% of it. A really humbling thought. […] We are the decoration in the universe. […] And so the conclusion that I’d like to draw is that: We are really badly designed to understand the universe.”
The main problem in research is: “curiosity is not neutral.” When astrophysics reaches its limits, cooperation between arts and science may indeed be fruitful for various reasons and could perhaps lead to better science in the end. In a later communication Roger Malina confirmed that the same can be demonstrated for the relation between natural sciences and humanities or social sciences.
However, the astronomer emphasized that an “art-science collaboration can lead to better science in some cases. It also leads to different science, because by embedding science in the larger society, I think the answer was wrong this morning about scientists peer-reviewing themselves. I think society needs to peer-review itself and to do that you need to embed science differently in society at large, and that means cultural embedding and appropriation. Helga Nowotny at the European Research Council calls this ‘socially robust science’. The fact that CERN did not lead to a black hole that ended the world was not due to peer-review by scientists. It was not due to that process.”
One of Malina’s main arguments focused on differences in “the ethics of curiosity”. The best ethics in (natural) science include notions like: intellectual honesty, integrity, organized scepticism, dis-interestedness, impersonality, universality. “Those are the believe systems of most scientists. And there is a fundamental flaw to that. And Humberto this morning really expanded on some of that. The problem is: Curiosity is embodied. You cannot make it into a neutral ideal of scientific curiosity. And here I got a quote of Humberto’s colleague Varela: “All knowledge is conditioned by the structure of the knower.”
In conclusion, a better co-operation of various sciences and skills is urgently necessary, because: “Artists asks questions that scientists would not normally ask. Finally, why we want more art-science interaction is because we don’t have a choice. There are certain problems in our society today that are so tough we need to change our culture to resolve them. Climate change: we’ve got to couple the science and technology to the way we live. That’s a cultural problem, and we need artists working on that with the scientists every day of the next decade, the next century, if we survive it.
Then Roger Malina directly turned to the LHC safety discussion and articulated an open contradiction to the safety assurance pointed out before: He would generally hope for a much more open process concerning the LHC safety debate, rather than discussing this only in a narrow field of particle physics, concrete: “There are certain problems where we cannot cloister the scientific activity in the scientific world, and I think we really need to break the model. I wish CERN, when they had been discussing the risks, had done that in an open societal context, and not just within the CERN context.”
Presently CERN is holding its annual meeting in Chamonix to fix LHC’s 2012 schedules in order to increase luminosity by a factor of four for maybe finally finding the Higgs Boson – against a 100-Dollar bet of Stephen Hawking who is convinced of Micro Black Holes being observed instead, immediately decaying by hypothetical “Hawking Radiation” — with God Particle’s blessing. Then it would be himself gaining the Nobel Prize Hawking pointed out. Quite ironically, at Ars Electronica official T-Shirts were sold with the “typical signature” of a micro black hole decaying at the LHC – by a totally hypothetical process involving a bunch of unproven assumptions.
In 2013 CERN plans to adapt the LHC due to construction failures for up to CHF 1 Billion to run the “Big Bang Machine” at double the present energies. A neutral and multi-disciplinary risk assessment is still lacking, while a couple of scientists insist that their theories pointing at even global risks have not been invalidated. CERN’s last safety assurance comparing natural cosmic rays hitting the Earth with the LHC experiment is only valid under rather narrow viewpoints. The relatively young analyses of high energetic cosmic rays are based on indirect measurements and calculations. Sort, velocity, mass and origin of these particles are unknown. But, taking the relations for granted and calculating with the “assuring” figures given by CERN PR, within ten years of operation, the LHC under extreme and unprecedented artificial circumstances would produce as many high energetic particle collisions as occur in about 100.000 years in the entire atmosphere of the Earth. Just to illustrate the energetic potential of the gigantic facility: One LHC-beam, thinner than a hair, consisting of billions of protons, has got the power of an aircraft carrier moving at 12 knots.
This article in the Physics arXiv Blog (MIT’s Technology Review) reads: “Black Holes, Safety, and the LHC Upgrade — If the LHC is to be upgraded, safety should be a central part of the plans.”, closing with the claim: “What’s needed, of course, is for the safety of the LHC to be investigated by an independent team of scientists with a strong background in risk analysis but with no professional or financial links to CERN.” http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/27319/
Australian ethicist and risk researcher Mark Leggett concluded in a paper that CERN’s LSAG safety report on the LHC meets less than a fifth of the criteria of a modern risk assessment. There but for the grace of a goddamn particle? Probably not. Before pushing the LHC to its limits, CERN must be challenged by a really neutral, external and multi-disciplinary risk assessment.
Video recordings of the “Origin III” symposium at Ars Electronica: Presentation Humberto Maturana: