Massive miscalculation makes LHC safety assurances invalid

lhc-risk

It just gets worse for CERN and its attempts to reassure us that the Large Hadron Collider won’t make mincemeat of the planet.

It’s beginning to look as if a massive miscalculation in the safety reckonings means that CERN scientists cannot offer any assurances about the work they’re doing.

In a truly frightening study, Toby Ord and pals at the University of Oxford say that “while the arguments for the safety of the LHC are commendable for their thoroughness, they are not infallible.”

When physicists give a risk assessment, their figure is only correct if their argument is valid. So an important questions is then: what are the chances that the reasoning is flawed?

Ord and co say that roughly one in a 1000 scientific papers have to be withdrawn because of errors. And errors are by no means unknown among particle physicists, even those doing safety calculations

The Oxford team points to a 1999 study of the risk of a “dangerous event” at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state. This study calculated that the chance of such an event was tiny: 2 x 10^-9.

On the strength of this study, the Collider was deemed safe and operated for five years before a serious error was found in the calculations. (It turned out that the actual risk was closer to 10^-12 but the important point is that there was an error).

The problem is compounded when the chances of a planet-destroying event are deemed to be tiny. In that case, these chances are dwarfed by the chances of an error in the argument. “If the probability estimate given by an argument is dwarfed by the chance that the argument itself is flawed, then the estimate is suspect,” say Ord and co.

Nobody at CERN has put a figure on the chances of the LHC destroying the planet. One study simply said: “there is no risk of any significance whatsoever from such black holes”.

Which means we are left with the possibility that their argument is wrong which Ord reckons conservatively to be about 10^-4, meaning that out of a sample of 10,000 independent arguments of similar apparent merit, one would have a serious error.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the LHC is dangerous, only that there is no reasonable assurance of safety which, as Mark Buchanan writing in New Scientist this week says, is not the same thing at all.

Even still, when it comes to the lives of 6.5 billion people, we need to have better assurances than this.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0810.5515: Probing the Improbable: Methodological Challenges Risks with Low Probabilities and High Stakes

[Via New Scientist]

Update: as an aid to the discussion here is a link to CERN’s analysis of the safety of LHC collisions, which was published last year.

75 Responses to “Massive miscalculation makes LHC safety assurances invalid”

  1. Imipak says:

    This seems an odd debate to be having. Let us start by determining what constitutes a dangerous black hole.

    First off, it obviously must take in more matter than it emits by Hawking Radiation. Otherwise it would evaporate. It may remain in a metastable state for some period of time, but it would need to be running very hot to be consuming as much matter as is lost into space anyway.

    Now, were it to expand, it would also be required to have a low enough relative velocity compared to the Earth that by the time it became dangerously large, it was close enough to the Earth to be dangerous. Since we’re talking about something formed from colliding particles at close to the speed of light, this more-or-less restricts you to the absolute head-on collisions.

    Next up, it has to be a genuine black hole. Superdense matter may have its own issues but it’s a whole different problem (pun not intended).

    Finally, people have posted here asking why there are no black holes in the sky. Well, actually, there are. All of space is peppered with micro black holes at the level of quantum foam. They form and they vanish in a process no different from any other particle within the quantum foam. There are several billion such black holes between you and your computer. (No, the IRS does not take that as an excuse, but nice try.) These do no obvious harm to anyone, so there is no logical reason to suppose that increasing the density of micro black holes will do so either.

    I acknowledge that not all of these arguments are “rigorous”, but I would contend that they’re “good enough”. Unless you want to calculate the “worst case” (all the energy ends up in one supermassive micro black hole) and perform the modeling necessary to determine life-expectency and relative velocity, no argument is going to be rigorous. The best anyone is going to do is a qualitative thought experiment, based on best-available information.

  2. Adrian Melott says:

    High energy cosmic rays keep going until they interact with something in the atmosphere. Then the products interact with more atoms in the atmosphere. At LHC energies and much higher. We are alive. End of story.

  3. The cosmic ray argument–that cosmic ray-produced mini-black holes would have destroyed the Earth long ago if they were real–is an urban myth. Try reading the primary literature. From Giddings and Mangano (2008, 33):

    “. . . these mechanisms cannot efficiently slow down neutral CR-produced black holes in Earth, or in other bodies such as planets and ordinary stars. . . . however, there is [a] small but finite probability for [black holes produced at the LHC] to be produced with velocities small enough to become gravitationally bound to the Earth and, in the hypothetical case of stability, to begin accreting.”

    End of story.

  4. You pro-LHC people belong in a padded rubber room. You’re psychotic grandiose delusional occultist extremist religious fanatics. You sell acadmic elixirs and theories. Nothing more, nothing less. You sell religion as science just replace the words “god” and “bible” with “theories” and “math”. The higgs boson/particle/field is an article of faith not science.

    No doubt legal profession is more corrupt than physics but apparently there is something called standard of evidence in legal profession…But not in physics. As judge and jury physicists are free to speculate about absurdities of their own invention with reckless abandon. Physicists are bound with no standard of evidence. They make the rules and they can tilt the playing field and move the goal posts as they wish. Physicists have taken the absurd so far into the twilight zone that no claim they make in the name of science will hold even in a court of law…stable mBH and strangelets are not the only issue.

    Murphys’ Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong eventually. The following is a partial Risk List: (MBH) Micro-Blackhole (non-dissipating forms), Expanding Quantum Wormholes (possibly caused by Project ALICE, using heavy lead(Pb) ion collisions (creating a gravitational plasma vortex), Relativistic Time-Distortions (General Relativity), Strangelet Transitions (possibly new destructive forms of matter), Loss of Structural Integrity (by disturbing quantum pathways, that could alter nuclear positionings and change molecular-chemical structures), and let’s not leave out Complete Protonic Particle Reversal (an anti-matter explosion)!

    Quantum processing/cellular automata is where it’s at if you REALLY want to accurately/rapidly fill in the miss blanks to the periodic table of elements…

    “computer science/ sets/ formal systems are taking over where theoretical physics has been sort of stagnating-simply because we have the technology to run ever more complex toy universes on computers [with total physical equivalence between simulations and the 'real' world projected by most computer scientists within only decades http://www.idsia.ch/~juergen/computeruniverse.html- this is the concept behind what Wolfram calls "A New kind of Science" that started with Turing/ Von Neumann/ Zuse/Feynman but is now exploding due to the exponentiation of computing technology- so it hardly matters if physicists are still clinging to String Theory or if they turn to LQG- at the end of the day it is computer scientists and mathematicians who are advancing the actual WORK now-"

    "most classical and quantum computer scientists expect to see something like Strings [or spinfoams] emerge from cellular automata at the proper scales- however it is not the abstract statistical models of the output of the CA that corresponds to our universe which will be printed as a TOE on t-shirts- but the CA’s description ITSELF…
    http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=164723

    LHC obsolescence “Billions of particles of anti-matter created in laboratory with lasers” https://publicaffairs.llnl.gov/news/news_releases/2008/NR-08-11-03.html

    Will the unified theory be not a short equation but a short computer program? Yes. Will today’s Periodic Table of Elements be replaced with a cellular automata by tomorrow’s science? Yes.http://www.mtnmath.com/digital.html

    Seriously, CERN: Get off the glue and paint fumes already kthx: http://forum.lhcdefense.org/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=47&st=0&sk=t&sd=a&sid=24155c2d3985d38c1b62a22557100871&start=30

  5. Zephir says:

    We already have a theories, like Heim’s theory, which are capable to predictions of most of particle properties in many orders of precision. No accelerator experiments in such dangerous arrangement are really necessary for further evolution of physics. Instead of it, we should save money for cold fusion research to be able to arrange them in free cosmic space.

    http://superstruny.aspweb.cz/images/fyzika/heim.gif

    If the scientific inquisitiveness is so strong, why not to analyze the possibilities of these theories to determine, why they’re so good first? It would be a much cheaper and safe for the rest of society.

    But scientists have completely different personal motivations, then to analyze foreign theories or inventions, no matter how bright or significant they can be. The participation on their “own” LHC experiments makes them more significant in their eyes.

  6. Zephir says:

    We already have a theories, like Heim’s theory, which are capable of predictions of most of particle properties in many orders of precision. No accelerator experiments in such dangerous arrangement are really necessary for further evolution of physics. If the scientific inquisitiveness is so strong, why not to analyze the possibilities of these theories to determine, why they’re so good first? It would be a much cheaper and safe for the rest of society.

    http://superstruny.aspweb.cz/images/fyzika/heim.gif

    Instead of it, we should save money for cold fusion research to be able to arrange them in free cosmic space.

    But scientists have apparently different personal motivations, then to analyze foreign theories or discoveries, no matter how bright or significant they can be. The participation on “their” experiments connected to their personal carriers makes them more significant in their eyes. These personal motivations may appear weak and insignificant, but when they cummulate for many members of community, it forms a significant brake of further unbiased evolution.

    It seems, people have a certain problem with their physicists.

  7. [...] there’s an inflammatory post on the physics preprint server blog with the headline Massive Miscalculation Makes LHC Safety Assurances Invalid.

  8. lucas says:

    Not to belittle anyone, but how does arguing on a little read blog solve anything? We all have our thoughts, but as it seems no one conceded defeat on either side, I think it’s safe to say that it won’t happen, so why not put this effort into something productive?

  9. Pebble-Bed Reactor technology is in its infancy, and extensive development of this science would allow for far more usage of nuclear reactors in lieu of fossil fuels.

    Thorium Reactor technology is in its infancy and extensive development of Thorium capability would allow for current Source Material mines to fuel mankind for centuries.

    Deuterium-Deuterium fusion has the potential to solve all energy problems of mankind. Two routes have shown some success – namely magnetic confinement fusion, and inertial confinement fusion [aka static, or ‘cold’ fusion]. Currently, these areas have too few physicists working on those lines. This should be a high-priority for dedicated physicists.

    High energy particle physicists are not concerned about this, however..they, like wallstreet, are more concerned about profits(nobels/careers.,etc) than they are about analytics(risk).

    Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out, whenever you see an unexplained burst of energy coming from the cosmos (and there are a lot of them), it may be some alien civilization, blowing itself to kingdom come while experimenting with the quantum vacuum.

    Arthur C. Clarke earned was not just a sci-fi writer, contrary to popular belief, he also earned a first-class degree in mathematics and physics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_C._Clarke

    The Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE) aboard the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory has recorded more than 2,000 bursts – about one a day – since its launch in 1991. A key finding is that the bursts are randomly distributed across the sky. http://science.nasa.gov/newhome/headlines/ast21oct98_1.htm

    Scientists recently made a discovery that forced them to re-think their theories on the most powerful explosions in the cosmos – gamma ray bursts. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/swift/bursts/hybrid_grb.html

    New article at scientific american on naked singularities and un-explained classes of gamma ray bursts: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=naked-singularities

  10. Zephir says:

    At the moment, some group of people constructs a nuclear weapon, you can be sure, they will use it. This is the same, like fighting against genetic experiments: the scientists doesn’t care about morality, just technical difficulties. If people can do something, then they will do it – less or more lately.

  11. Dude says:

    Did you ever consider the fact that high energy protons hit the surface of the Moon also? Surely the Moon would have been swallowed up by a black hole by now if there were a danger from mini black holes due to high energy protons.

    Note also that Nobel prize winner Frank Wilczek has argued that even if mini black holes were somehow created and were stable it would take them billions of years to grow to appreciable size (in a scientific american podcast from 2008).

  12. Zephir says:

    High energy proton can remain in contact with Earth only for microseconds because it moves by nearly luminal speed and it’s not followed by whole bunch of another protons from both direction. Such collision geometry has no direct analogy over whole Universe with honor exception of brane collision in its very beginning.

    But I’m not prepared to Universe recyclation yet. I want to remain a vital mutation of Universe evolution.

  13. Zephir says:

    /* ..it would take them billions of years to grow to appreciable size… */
    This could be valid only for nonmagnetic and non charged black holes. But by my opinion the surface gradient of black hole is always connected with strong rotation. Such black hole can grow pretty fast, after then.

    Another point is, the interaction of black hole with ordinary matter would lead to strong accretion radiation. The pressure of accretion radiation will cause a fast movement of black hole through Earth core in analogy to Leidenfrost effect. With full respect to all theorists, I’d always consider real situation first in accordance to Murphy’s law.

  14. Zephir says:

    /* ..it would take them billions of years to grow to appreciable size… */
    The strangelet formation can lead into avalanche like multiplication and propagation of another strangelets by the immense speed. By such way, whole Earth can change into large evaporating cluster of tiny quark or neutron stars in a moment.

    If nothing else, I don’t want to share my planet with some shitty parasite inside it – no matter, how cool it may appear for some.

  15. vernes says:

    Should we launch a satelite with a sign “we smashed stuff together and blew ourselves up.” ?

    I think I’ll need a stiff drink and a bag of peanuts.

  16. unknown variable says:

    Is Hawking radiation what my fiance emits subsequent to the mastication of a spicy vindaloo ?

    Why is it, that during the pursuit to obtain the truth, the philosopher becomes a charismatic and contented individual, whom often proceeds to become a comedian ? (Or in other words, a person who spends their existence laughing and happy). Yet those that lack competent philosophical reasoning spend their entire lives buried in theoretical models and are quite the opposite.

    Who is the happiest ? Who provides the most entertainment and happiness ? Who lives the most contented life ? Is the relentless pursuit of truth via external analysis the fundamental flaw that leads to the destruction of organised civilisation ? taking into consideration that the philosopher merely needs to perform diligent interospection to attain happiness ?

    What must me value in life to evolve ? The discovery of the mythical Higgs boson ? Or the capacity to be contented ?

  17. unknown variable says:

    Is Hawking radiation what my fiance emits subsequent to the mastication of a spicy vindaloo ?

    Why is it, that during the pursuit to obtain the truth, the philosopher becomes a charismatic and contented individual, whom often proceeds to become a comedian ? (Or in other words, a person who spends their existence laughing and happy). Yet those that lack competent philosophical reasoning spend their entire lives buried in theoretical models and are quite the opposite.

    Who is the happiest ? Who provides the most entertainment and happiness ? Who lives the most contented life ? Is the relentless pursuit of truth via external analysis the fundamental flaw that leads to the destruction of organised civilisation ? taking into consideration that the philosopher merely needs to perform diligent introspection to attain happiness ?

    What must me value in life to evolve ? The discovery of the mythical Higgs boson ? Or the capacity to be contented ?

  18. David Schwartz says:

    This headline is not nearly sensational enough. In fact, the article argues that this one massive miscalculation makes *all* safety assurances invalid.

  19. Dude says:

    /* ..it would take them billions of years to grow to appreciable size… */
    /* This could be valid only for nonmagnetic and non charged black holes. */
    Uh, ok — well, if it was charged (say +2e) then what happens next? Maybe it swallows up two electrons and then it’s out of our hair for a billion years or so. Get over it.

  20. Bert Chadick says:

    Well, now we can guess where all that missing mass went and why there are a lot of civilizations filling the bandwidth between stars with alien chatter.

  21. robert says:

    Zephir is an idiot. (The guy can’t even spell
    Zephyr correctly.) This is what happens
    when morons with very little understanding of
    mathematics and physics are allowed to spout
    off ideas about subjects they know nothing
    about.

    The earth has been in existence for 4 billion years and
    during that period has experienced tens of thousands of
    LHC type collisions each minute of that existence.
    So, why is the earth still here today? Because, to
    put it in terms that common people like Zephir can
    understand, it is IMPOSSIBLE for a cosmic ray to
    create a black hole massive enough to swallow earth.
    Any black hole created by the LHC (or by cosmic rays)
    will be so small and so light (hell, one cell of
    your skin is heavier than any black hole produced
    by the LHC) it cannot suck the very massive
    earth. It is so small that Hawking evaporation will
    get to it before it gets a chance to absorb sufficient mass.
    It is so small that even if you swallowed it, the
    black hole won’t have sufficient mass to gravitationally
    attract a single proton from your body. Quantum repulsive
    effects (the same effects that prevent an electron
    from falling into the nucleus)
    are so much stronger than gravitational forces that
    the black hole can’t even go near enough your body’s
    constituent elementary particles to allow its
    pathetic gravitational attraction to swallow anything up.

    How much more demonstration does Zephir need to realize
    it is impossible for the LHC to destroy earth? Does Zephir
    know that if the sun turns into a black hole at this
    very minute that the earth will still safely orbit around
    it as if nothing happened? A black hole cannot create mass.
    It will have the same mass it has before and will still
    have the same gravitational force it had before.

    Science students,—especially those who have studied
    thermodynamics—just don’t like to say events are
    impossible. They may say something
    like the chances are 1 in 10e-13 but that number
    is so small it is, for practical purposes, impossible.
    These physics guys can calculate the chances that
    a careening billiard ball will scatter the other balls
    in a table into the initial position. But practically
    speaking, who has ever seen that happen?

    If anyone wants to know why physics does not say
    impossible then perhaps they should study thermodynamics.
    If Zephir wants to understand probability and statistics
    then perhaps he should study them instead of acting
    like he knows more than he knows.

    An irrational fear is a neurosis and can severely
    impair an individual.

    For example, what are the chances that Zephir, while
    sleeping tonight, will be killed by a way-ward
    meteor? Should Zephir not sleep each night for fear
    he will die? What are the chances that a 747 will
    land on top of Zephir’s head as he sleeps tonight?
    Should Zephir have his basement room covered with
    a concrete bunker able to withstand a 747 diving
    into it?

    As you can see, both of the events above are not
    impossible. They are even likelier than
    an LHC experiment will destroy earth. However, one is
    stupid to bet a whole lot of money that Zephir will
    die due to a meteor or a crashing 747.

    To put it in terms non-specialists can understand,
    it is likelier that you will die of a car crash
    than because a black hole from the LHC will swallow
    you up. In other words, get rid of those irrational
    fears.

  22. Zephir says:

    Zephir nickname has lower Google pagerank, so it’s much more relevant as a keyword for web search from obvious reasons. While I can still appear like an idiot for some people, I personally consider such view irrelevant to any matter of fact discussion. The fact, my reasons appear irrational for you can simply mean, you didn’t (want to) understand them.

    As I explained already, cosmic ray arguments aren’t wery relevant to highly asymmetric LHC collisions geometry, so it has no meaning to repeat them all the time. This geometry – not the energy scale – is what makes the LHC collisions so unique and orthogonal to extrapolations based on highly symmetrical thermodynamics. It’s product of very rare human evolution. Whole AWT is just about probability of various symmetries.

    So we are required to reconsider LHC experiments in much deeper, publicly available and peer reviewed security analysis. We should simply apply scientific method even to security analysis of scientific experiments – no less, no more.

    And my problem isn’t about black holes, which are rather abstract concept, but about strangelet formation, which was observed already in collider experiments by my opinion. So that their risk is much more relevant.

  23. Eric says:

    Well, I’m pretty sure that – if the authors of this article were aware of the following – they would be a lot more worried.
    If you imagine a micro black hole, in extra dimensions, with the Hawking radiation applying, it seems the more widely preferred way of calculating what the rate of evaporation is, gives a very much slower rate than CERNs does. If this mbh accretes quickly enough to approach near to our 4dimensional scale, the expected Hawking radiation level could get extremely dangerous.

    Further, by applying existing and pretty strongly credited existing theories to lhc micro black holes, such dangers – I believe – have not as yet been theoretically excluded even by the new Casadio/Harms/Fabi paper, as the full range of feasible criteria have not been included.

  24. [...] about the planet 8. February 2009., Sunday — mmlacak Have you noticed sudden rush of worried physicists, anxious journalists, concerned individuals about prospect that not so evanescent [...]