Strangelet Fear-Mongering And Death By Review
    By Tommaso Dorigo | February 18th 2014 04:27 AM | 27 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

    View Tommaso's Profile
    I believe I am not alone in being fascinated by the ongoing debates about this or that physics experiment being on the verge of destroying the Earth. Microscopic black holes produced by mistake in particle physics experiments sinking down to the center of the Earth and slowly eating us out, small black holes used as "clean" bombs, antimatter weapons, strange-matter bits gradually engulfing everything around.

    It is quite entertaining and it would be even good for physics outreach if spun the right way, but unfortunately we should not trust too much the sense of humour of our political leaders.

    The latest page of the book is an article which appeared on the International Business Times a week ago. It discusses the cuts to the RHIC physics program and the broader context of concerns that the heavy nuclei collisions taking place there might produce strangelets, particles made of an equal mixture of up, down, and strange quarks (wikipedia contains more information on strangelets than I could ever provide here, so please see there if you are interested).

    The article recalls past studies which assessed the risk as "nonexistent, criticizing the approach:

    Too little thought was given to risk from the RHIC’s beginning. In July 1999, before the collider opened, a flurry of media interest about the strangelet question prompted Brookhaven’s then-director to gather a team of four scientists to consider the issue. The resulting report, completed by the end of September, concluded the RHIC was safe and that a delay in starting it up was unwarranted.

    But after public concerns subsided, critics emerged, assailing the risk-assessment method as flawed. Dr. Rees wrote that theorists “seemed to have aimed to reassure the public … rather than to make an objective analysis.”
    So scientists are biased by their goals - they do not care if they risk destroying us. I find most disturbing the following sentence in particular:
    Richard Posner noted [...] that the scientists on the Brookhaven risk-assessment team were either planning to participate in RHIC experiments or had a deep interest in the RHIC’s data.
    Aha, as always, a conflict of interest is apparent. Let's study those collisions, who cares if we blow everything up !

    Overall, I find the article really slanted toward fear-mongering. Take the following sentence as a good example:
    Also unfortunate, the commission is likely to work slowly. Once formed this spring, the commission’s deadline for submitting its report is February 2015. It would be better if the RHIC risk question was reviewed sooner. Plans for resuming the RHIC experiment are being made and there is some reason to think this next run will present elevated risk. Collisions will be run at a low-energy level, and physicists consider this mode of operation to be more likely to produce strangelets.
    That would at least demonstrate the ultimate deadly power of scientific review slowness.

    One last thought: regardless of the evidently significant disappointment of losing our entire planet, mankind, and our artistic heritage (where else in the Universe is there a Chopin, or a Mozart ? Alas, I fear we will never know, strangelets or not), I fail to be seized by the fear of dying a much premature death by being turned into strange matter, as I know that I would be going down with absolutely everybody and everything else.

    Am I the only one feeling unconcerned ?


    Lawsuit, can be re-enacted? :)

    Some would have remembered the issues back then with Walter Wagner. Some would have also remembered James Blodgett-

    So that is what I was referring too. Astrophysical implications of hypothetical stable TeV-scale black holes

    Anyway this is what prompted some of the questions I had about what we were missing when looking at cosmic particle collisions as a testing ground in the LHC. What was natural.

    Of course, if the review was scheduled to be completed quickly, the fear-mongers would complain that it was being "rushed" at the expense of being thorough.

    “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.”
    ― Albert Einstein

    Why the people are so ready to fear anything but their own stupidity?

    I don't think there's any danger of experiments destroying the Earth. But I think there's a danger that loose talk of such, could destroy all collider programmes. Tommaso, you might feel cool about dying if everybody else dies, but everybody else doesn't. And groan, what the hell is this: "The process would, according to Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom, leave the planet “an inert hyperdense sphere about one hundred metres across".

    Thank god people can still talk without funding agents relying on the b******t they say John.
    John Duffield
    Tommaso: if CERN physicists go round talking about the Earth being destroyed and saying they don't care, they can kiss their funding goodbye, and they can kiss CERN goodbye. Capiche?
    /*Let's study those collisions, who cares if we blow everything up !*/
    It's worse than that. The CERN physicists are testing the theories, which predict the stabilization of black hole with extradimensions just by attempts to prepare these black holes. I.e. they're validating the theories predicting the risk just with establishing this risk.

    Regarding the rest of your comments, I'm not even sure, if you understand the physical motivations of strangelet formation and propagation and its counter/arguments? I do value your blog quite a lot, but this particular post apparently did hit the limits of your personal tolerance against opposite stance - you suddenly became ideological, not factual.

    Dear Zephir,

    I am not ideological, I just expressed my own distaste for the situation, in my own way. It would have taken another post and a much longer discussion to explain my real point of view on the matter. Here I wanted to be a bit sarcastic rather than analytica.

    /*.. Here I wanted to be a bit sarcastic rather than analytical ..*/

    Currently no relevant analysis of strangelet risk exists and this is just the problem. The sarcasm cannot work under such a situation - it has no cognitive background, so to say. You have nothing to make fun of, so to say.

    The existence of strangelets and strange matter is the invention of mainstream physics, not some fearful alarmists. So I would expect, just the mainstream physicists would take it seriously. But there is certain shift in perception of precautionary principle from attitude of USA physicists and these European ones and your first time reaction just illustrates it.

    Regds, Zephir

    Didn't the LHC get its funding support largely by hyping BSM physics to a ludicrous degree that spawned the fear mongering in the first place? Black holes, multiple dimensions, time travel, imaginary particles galore? Now that those poor unfortunate unwashed masses that took the PR blitz BS seriously are showing concern, you show them flippant contempt and mock them for being stupid?
    As for your comment:
    ".. I fail to be seized by the fear of dying a much premature death by being turned into strange matter, as I know that I would be going down with absolutely everybody and everything else. Am I the only one feeling unconcerned ?"
    ...Well, I'm not sure why you would want to say this. It isn't even remotely funny, and quite frankly lends impetus to those who would cut your funding.

    Hi C.,

    no, the LHC got funded by promising what it delivered already, i.e. the Higgs boson. The rest is crap from newspapers and magazines that have to sell to live.

    About my comment, it is my blog and I express my views on things. I do not pretend to be always educational and always politically correct.

    /* LHC got funded by promising what it delivered already, i.e. the Higgs boson */

    When the search for Higgs looked disappointing, the media did choose different motivation

    One opinion piece in one magazine that claimed, once again, that everything is about supersymmetry is hardly "the media". You only see what you want to see, pick what chooses your predetermined belief and ignore everything else - it's simple confirmation bias.
    Hi Tommaso,

    I really appreciate that u discussed this "unpleasant"
    topic! Can we please switch to the analytica mode for a moment?

    CERN's safety report from 2008:
    did not rely on any of the astrophysical safety arguments that were brought forward
    in connection with the 1999 safety report for RHIC (I think among experts it is generally agreed that they were
    all flawed) for the case of strangelets. Instead it basically argued that the
    thermal model predicts a completely negligible probability to produce even a single strangelet at LHC.
    This argument relies on the reliability of this model of course.
    The report states:

    "This will be among the first data analyses done in the LHC
    heavy-ion programme, and will immediately provide an experimental
    confirmation of the basic assumptions on
    which the safety argument is based."

    Here's a recent comparison of LHC data with the thermal model:

    The conclusion from this still incomplete data-set (even 3 years after the first HI run,
    only one nucleus has been analysed, far from "immediately"), quote:
    "Excellent agreement with the statistical hadronization model has been achieved with exception of the (anti-)proton yields. So far no convincing explanation for this 2.8 sigma deviation is available."

    Actually it's more than one 2.8 sigma deviation: a 2.7 sigma deviation of the protons and
    a 2.9 sigma deviation of the antiprotons, so there really seems to be some disagreement.
    My conclusion from this is: the thermal model is a good first guess
    but then there are additional unexpected details.

    Can a safety guarantee then be still based on the assumed absolute reliability of the thermal model?

    Isn't there an obvious potential conflict of interest here for you
    in your capacity as HE physicist?
    I mean, just assume upon further LHC data u came to the conclusion that
    it seems to risky (say an felt probability for disaster of one percent in the further planned runs)
    to run LHC any further in the HI mode.
    In spite of your sarcastic comments I know that u do not want your son to die a rather
    unpleasant death (it would not be quick...) in a strangelet-induced disaster.
    So one interest would be to spell out your opinion in public.
    But wouldn't there be another (completely legitimate) conflicting interest to stay quiet in
    order not to make all of your HEP colleagues very, very angry against u?

    If a physicist looking into this concluded that there were a real danger, even a small one, I suspect that "this might kill me and everyone I know" would probably trump "this might jeopardize my funding". Admittedly, if I were working on this and came to the conclusion that something terrible could happen, I'd probably get someone to double check the work before panicking. But in the end, I suspect that most physicists have a serious desire to continue to exist.

    The existing safety analysis of LHC couldn't consider the black hole simulations, which had came later

    IMO the microblack holes stabilized with extradimensions are common protons and atom nuclei, which are produced at LHC and RHIC routinely, so no actually danger may come from here - the physicists are just confused with subject. The same extradimensions limit their gravity action at distance scope of common weak and strong nuclear interactions.

    The strangelets are sorta different problem and they have their motivation in apparent stability of quark and electroweak stars and the kick which follows their merging. Whereas I'm skeptical to idea of avalanche propagation of strange matter, it's formation doesn't look so nonsensical for me.

    It's ironic. I was reflecting earlier today upon Hendrik Schon and the invasion of the Grey Goo scare. This tested the intelligence and fear levels in a segment of humanity. Strangelets (a hypothetical particle) seems to be a source of Science Fiction "end of days" story lines. This is a rather "strange matter" (pun intended). I often wonder how differently attitudes would be if the Atomic Bomb was never dropped. It's an imagine which is buried into our cultural mindset. A common theme of fear and "End of life" itself. People fear that which they don't understand nor have any true control over. My greatest fear for humanity is that of stupidity. It would be ironic, if this research proves useful in saving humanity instead of being the end of it all. After all, the universe is a very dangerous place with questionable particles on the loose. Perhaps we should fear not doing these experiments more than doing them.

    I hope people realize that a drop of science can tear down vast, dark swathes of ignorance and its ensuing servitude in whatever form, and become aware that fear-mongering is only a ploy in the hands of the ignorant to stall those keen on venturing new realms of knowledge from earning dear freedom..

    So far the collider experiments are useless for human society progress - we still have no usage for any new particle produced in colliders. On the contrary, the mainstream science ignores finding in the field of cold fusion, magnetic motors, etc. The collider research distracts the interest of the best brains on this planet from the research, which could actually help the human civilization fast.

    Dear Zephir,

    I sincerely hope you will never need to rely on hadrotherapy to burn tumor cells deep inside your body. That technique is only possible thanks to the accelerator developments brought about in HEP, and our improved understanding of energy deposition in material by ionizing particles.

    Hello Tomasso,

    As far I know, hadroterapy doesn't use any particles revealed with colliders (even muons weren't found in collider). I've nothing against particle research, but we should have realistic view about its practical applications today and we should prioritize the research. At the moment, when the cold fusion is ignored for years - whereas the nuclear physics is researched freely, then we - as a tax payers - may perceive some conflict of interest here.

    That is to say, if we can research both "interesting findings" and both "interesting findings of practical usage" - then we should prioritize the later option. Or the HEP physicists will be these first ones, who will suffer with their own ignorance.

    Which is the situation, which no one of us probably wants. Because the current financial crisis has its roots in energetic crisis and we still have no cold fusion finding ATTEMPTED to replicate in peer reviewed press (Paneth & Petters 1926, Piantelli & Focardi 1992). Which just means for me, that the interest of mainstream physics is officially missing here.

    I'm sure, if the physicists would take the Paneth, Petters, Tanberg etc. findings responsibly, we would have enough of energy already and the physicists today could build their colliders in free cosmic space at the safe distance from Earth. We would save the money for vacuum pumping and helium for cooling, etc. And whole the discussion about collider safety wouldn't be even necessary.

    Am I the only one feeling unconcerned ?


    I will trust anyone who comes to conclusions which are soundly based in science - which of course rules out economists.

    btw, did you know that since Galileo's experiment with gravity more people have died in earthquakes than before he started messing with nature?  Just saying.  ;-)
    Mr. T -

    I honestly think it would be better not to even acknowledge opinion pieces by two lawyers concerning RHIC and anything beyond F=ma (Perhaps not even that far). Don't feed the trolls.

    Were they both lawyers? I thought the other one was a science fiction writer. But I did like how the one lawyer called himself Doctor, because in the US a law school degree is a juris doctorate.