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Peter Steinberg | USLHC | USA

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The Never Ending War

I admit it: I’m still pinching myself on a daily basis when I see “President Obama” in newspapers and on broadcasts.  While many are excited about how he will restore balance to American foreign policy and the gyrating economy, those of us in the science community are still buzzing about Obama proclaiming loudly and clearly, in his inaugural address no less, that he will “restore science to its rightful place.”

Dennis Overbye wrote a lovely piece for yesterday’s Science Times on this, thoughtfully explaning the connection between scientific method and democratic values.  In particular, science is “not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth”.  That is to say, it is an approach towards finding truth which implies a worldview based on values of “honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.”  Overbye goes on to discuss how this pragmatic activity, this behavior which “evolved because it worked”, is often squelched in authoritarian societies such as China.  There, any contradiction with Marxist dogma (which while anti-religion, does all those things that orthodox religions do), including advocating the Big Bang theory, leads to imprisonment or worse.  But even nominal democracies like ours can stray, as it has in recent years:

But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.

What still surprises me, in this optimistic new era, is that science can still remain under attack — but the techniques get more and more insidious.  To my eyes, the doomsday crowd plays a similar role as the same gang of politically-motivated thugs who try and squelch actual science.  But rather than claiming that certain science is immoral (e.g. stem-cell research), they object to it on the grounds that it is somehow dangerous for humanity on scales that we can barely imagine — based on “scientific” arguments which can be proven false.  Seriously, I could accept their concerns, but only if they had a point and they took a consistent scientific approach to the problem, allowing all relevant evidence to bear upon it.

But check out this Onion-worthy headline Fox News ran today (pointed out by fellow blogger Seth): “Scientists Not So Sure ‘Doomsday Machine’ Won’t Destroy World.’” from an article by Paul Wagenseil.  It seems to start out in the right way: here is a scientific paper which says something, and I’m telling you the conclusion.  But he isn’t.

Instead of quoting the actual paper, an unrefereed (it’s arxiv, natch) preprint by Casadio, Fabi, and Harms (yes, Harms), Wagenseil quotes a blog post merely about the paper on arxivblog.org.  Arxivblog is  anonymously written by a blogger named “KFC” and is unrelated to the actual arXiv.org website.  I personally think KFC is an amusing blogger, as do many others, and seems to know something about physics.  However, the conclusion drawn from the last sentence of the paper: “Whoa, let’s have that again: these mini black holes will be hanging around for seconds, possibly minutes?” has two serious problems.  First, it has no obvious connection to the destructive power of said black holes.  Second, it is completely at odds with the conclusion drawn by the authors of the paper, who most-likely know their assumptions and results far better: “We conclude that, for the RS scenario and black holes described by the metric ([6]), the growth of black holes to catastrophic size does not seem possible” (which is the second-to-last sentence.)

If you’re going to use a paper’s conclusions to support an argument, the scientific method requires you to cite the full conclusion, not just the part that you need.  All of the estimates in the paper, based on quite relaxed assumptions, tend to work against a doomsday scenario, but this doesn’t seem to make it into either the arxivblog post — nor into the article by the putative science journalist who doesn’t bother to read the original paper, or simply call the authors.

Instead, all you get is a punchy headline, which can only add fuel to the fires raging against doing actual scientific research.  We can only hope that in the Obama era, Overbye’s imagined “wild and beautiful” garden of wide-ranging scientific research is properly protected from those fires.


5 Responses to “The Never Ending War”

  1. Peter, the thing that surprises me, as a long time follower of the issue of safety at the LHC, is that the paper does present a model in which the longevity of the potential micro black hole is so much longer than what had previously been suggested. (Correct me if I am wrong, but until this paper, it was always a matter of mini black holes evaporating in a tiny fraction of a second while still within the LHC’s detectors, wasn’t it? I know Giddings and Mangano did their work to show that, even if everyone is wrong about Hawking Radiation, the black holes still can’t be a danger; but they were not suggesting that HR is not expected to happen within a very short time, were they?)

    This sort of revision about the length of time that a micro black hole might hang around, at this late stage of the LHC commissioning, does not exactly encourage confidence that the theoretical work has covered as many possibilities as it could.

    I note, for example, that there has been the suggestion in a 2007 paper that naked singularities could be produced at the LHC. I don’t recall these ever being discussed in safety reviews, but again, correct me if I am wrong. As no one knows exactly how they would behave, I guess the only way of arguing they can’t be a danger is to use the cosmological argument again (if stars aren’t being destroyed by naked singularities, then the earth won’t be either.)

    What concerns me is whether there is a mechanism via which the LHC is a danger on a planetary scale, but not a stellar scale. That way, the existence of neutron stars would not be particularly relevant. (The continued existence of planets in our own solar system in spite of cosmic ray bombardment is relevant, of course, but there is a difference in the nature of the collisions and the speed of the products.)

    Plaga last year suggested a different mechanism by which mini black holes could be a danger. I know that Giddings and Mangano said he made a fundamental mistake; I know that Plaga has denied that he did. (I see at the end of the recent paper the subject of your post, they acknowledge discussions with Plaga, which indicates to me that he is not considered as a complete nutter in these matters.) As I am a non scientist who has trouble following their papers, I find it difficult to tell who is right.

    Other matters that I am not sure have ever been considered in the safety reviews: what happens in the (presumably unlikely event) that two mini black holes meet; does the potential “shape” of a black hole make a difference (the “black Saturn” shape that I have seen discussed); is there any way in which the speculated black hole remnants could present a danger in the short or long term?

    Don’t get upset, I am more than happy to learn that such matters have been considered. But instead, the impression I get is that really thorough safety review work has been pretty much left to the last minute. Worriers are initially told they are being ridiculous, while the actual work to try and conclusively show why a particular scenario is not a concern (such as by Mangano & Giddings, and this later paper) is done later.

    And of course I don’t believe that physicists are mad scientists who happily run risks to the safety of earth and their families. But poor safety calls have been made in the past, and may happen again; it doesn’t require callousness.

  2. Seth Zenz says:

    Hi Steve. The LHC safety reports did not assume that black holes decay at all. The entire point was to be very conservative, and to rely on as few theoretical assumptions as possible. Because of that, inventing a new model with black holes lasting longer than in other models has no impact on the conclusions of the previous work.

  3. Jessica says:

    Peter Steinberg thanks to highlight the most important current issues.

  4. Eric says:


    That the LHC safety reports are not based on black hole decay/radiation is just the area where Plaga brings in a differing analysis. This analysis is based on a differing interpretation of Randall Sundrum decay rate that Casadio Harms calculated in 2002. This gave over 30 years mbh duration as possible. Plaga uses a differing way of obtaining the critical mass Mc than in the Fabi et al 2009 paper. This is effectively what would be given by eq(16) of the Fabi paper, which then, without any explanation is jettisoned from the rest of the analysis and calculation.

    Also if Fabi et al are happy with an extra dimens Schwarzschild radius at L throughout the warped range -which itself they strangely squash to approx zero, why shouldn’t one just as well apply a min classical Schwarzschild radius throughout warp thereby obtaining much a faster accretion rate?

  5. Dov Henis says:

    On Black Holes, Biosphere(s) And All Mass-Formats
    Cosmic Evolution Simplified

    A. A black future
    Without destroying the Earth, the Large Hadron Collider might help humans explore the cosmos

    B. On The Origin And Nature Of Cosmic Evolution:
    It Is Space-Distance, Not Space-Time.
    Life’s Is The Ubiquitous Cosmic Evolution Mode.

    The mode of a gene’s response to organism-culture’s feedback signal, i.e. “replicate without change” or “replicate with change” in case of proven augmented energy constrainment by the offspring, is the mode of Life’s normal evolution, which is the mode of evolution universally.

    Genes’ Expression Modification

    Again, the scope of of genes lifehood is not just the lifehood of genes.

    Genes, and Life in general, are but one of the forms of mass, of constrained energy formats. The lifehood of genes is the foundation of the subject of evolutionary biology, which is a major component of the subject of life, which is a minute component of the subject of evolution of the universe, which is the subject for which humanity seeks a unified field theory.

    Since the big-bang resolution of E/m superposition ALL the energy of the universe is destined for the galactic clusters expansion plus laying down of the gravity natrix for the eventual cosmic impansion, and ALL the mass is destined to revert to energy for these ends. The mass-to-energy reversion is resisted by the mass, this resistance being the archtype of selection for survival by all materials, including life. This resistance is due, exciting to us, to the fact that – as we know from everyday experience – formation of mass requires investment of energy, that dissipates when the mass disintegrates. And as we also know from everyday experience all energy forms other than gravity end up eventually as gravity energy. This is expected since ALL the contents of the universe are manifestations of the gravity energy freed at Inflation.

    And again, a unified field theory is sought since unlike the evergrowing list of specific science/technology divisions drawn by the “scientists” trade-unions like the AAAS, the universe and Earth evolve as an integrated intertwined interrelated tangled whole and not as a collection of individual divisions.

    C. Updated Physical Evolution Defintion

    1. Three present definitions of physical evolution, at


    - a process of change in a certain direction.

    - a theory that the various types of animals and plants have their origin in other preexisting types and that the distinguishable differences are due to modifications in their successive generations, and also the process described by this theory.

    - a process in which the whole universe is a progression of interrelated phenomena.

    2. Suggested updated physical evolution definition, of Life’s normal evolution and universal energy-mass evolution.

    a theory, and the process described by it, that the whole universe changes in a progression of interrelated phenomena of mass formats attaining temporary augmented energy constraint in their successive generations with energy drained from other mass formats, to temporarily postpone, survive, reverting of their mass to the cosmic energy fueling the galactic clusters expansion.

    D. Black holes of ALL sizes are constrained-enegy mass formats. Like biosphere(s) they require energy to survive temporarily, to avoid as long as possible their energy used to fuel the ongoing cosmic expansion.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)
    Updated Life’s Manifest May 2009
    Implications Of E=Total[m(1 + D)]

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